How Russia uses Telegram to spy on opponents of the invasion in Ukraine

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How Russia uses Telegram to spy on opponents of the invasion in Ukraine
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The Telegram logo inserted into a computer screen (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration)

Telegram the messaging application created with the aim of allowing users to communicate privately and securely, became a powerful weapon that the kremlin uses against activists and opponents after the invasion of Ukraine, revealed a detailed investigation by the American magazine WIRED.

In the decade that has passed since its creation in Russia, Telegram grew to become one of the largest social networks in the world, with 700 million users. “For us, Telegram is an idea,” said its creator, the Russian Pavel Durov. “It’s the idea that everyone on this planet has the right to be free.”

The reality, however, appears to be somewhat different. The platform, which has been billed as a haven for secure and anonymous communication, requires users to go out of their way to set a chat to “secret”; Unlike WhatsApp either signal, end-to-end encryption is not the default and is not available for groups. Their encryption protocols also lack independent verification.

The founder and CEO of Telegram Pavel Durov (REUTERS / Albert Gea)

The founder and CEO of Telegram Pavel Durov (REUTERS / Albert Gea)

Moxie Marlinspikeco-founder of signalTelegram’s US rival summed it up this way: “After a decade of misleading press and marketing, most people there believe it’s an ‘encrypted app.’ The reality is the opposite”.

“Telegram has the ability to share almost any confidential information that a government requests”, warned the note of influential media specialized in technology,

This explains how the government of Vladimir Putin it seems to be able to read everything users share on it.

spied activists

According to experts and activists, the Kremlin has begun to exploit the app’s weaknesses as it intensifies its crackdown on opponents. In Russia, Telegram has become almost indispensable in the last year, due to Putin’s crackdown on Western tech companies. At the same time, numerous dissidents have seen their accounts apparently monitored or compromised. Hundreds of them have seen their Telegram activity used against them in criminal cases.

Russian police officers detain men during an unauthorized demonstration in Moscow (REUTERS/File photo)

Russian police officers detain men during an unauthorized demonstration in Moscow (REUTERS/File photo)

“The most worrying thing”, reads the note from the respected journalist Darren Loucaides“is that some activists have discovered that their ‘secret chats’ – Telegram’s supposedly strong end-to-end encryption feature – behave strangely, suggesting that an unwanted third party could be eavesdropping.”

WIRED cites the case of Marina Matsapulina, an opponent of Putin’s war and vice president of the Russian Libertarian Party, The young woman was detained after investigators had been reading her private Telegram chats while she was writing them, something the agents who arrested her told her. In a Twitter thread, the activist noted that the “unpleasant” explanation for the event was “obvious to everyone.” The Russians, she said, had to consider the possibility that Telegram was now complying with the legal requests from the Kremlin.

“I don’t want to spread panic, I don’t want to pretend I’m some kind of expert on this topic, but I do want to urge everyone to be careful what you say on Telegram. It may no longer be the safe space that everyone believed it to be, ”Matsapulina wrote, announcing that from then on she would use signal.

Even more mystery surrounds some of the activities that dissidents have found their role in. “secret chats”, supposedly the most secure Telegram setting.

Activists say the Russians need to consider the possibility that Telegram is complying with the Kremlin's legal requests. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Activists say the Russians need to consider the possibility that Telegram is complying with the Kremlin’s legal requests. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

For example, the opposition Anya Kurbatova She noticed that both her normal messages and her secret chats were showing up as “read” when she knew the recipient hadn’t read them. She also noticed that sometimes when she logged out of a secret chat, the session was still marked as “open” and the messages could still be read. This should have been impossible: as each chat receives a unique encryption key that disappears after the session ends

In most cases, however, Telegram’s lack of transparency makes it “impossible to know what’s really going on…whether spyware or Kremlin informants have been used to break in,” according to WIRED.

The result was that much of the Russian opposition movement abandoned Telegram. “People left Russia in exile,” he told WIRED Ksenia Ermoshinaa researcher at Citizen Lab and the Center for Internet and Society, “and they left Telegram in exile!”

vulnerable interface

Experts say that the way it is designed Telegram allows access to user content for the mass surveillance. That is, if a government or other organization wanted to access citizen data, it could do so without making a formal request to the company.

“Telegram gives you pretty much anything,” he said jordan wildona researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks disinformation and extremism.

This is due, on the one hand, to the design of its application programming interface (API), the software portal through which application developers and researchers can connect to a platform and extract data from it for their own projects. In the case of Telegramthat data includes the text content and metadata of any group chats or public channels, and even a record of when users last logged on.

Unlike WhatsApp or Signal, Telegram's end-to-end encryption is not the default and is not available for groups. Its encryption protocols also lack independent verification.

Unlike WhatsApp or Signal, Telegram’s end-to-end encryption is not the default and is not available for groups. Its encryption protocols also lack independent verification.

On the other hand, messages from Telegram they are also accessible to people inside the company. “In other words, Telegram has the ability to share almost any sensitive information that a government requests. Users just have to trust that it won’t,” he warns. WIRED.

It is not the only risk of using the application. The war in Ukraine showed that the design of Telegram has also put the people in danger: “At the beginning of the war… it was possible to fake Telegram’s location API to locate any user within a 3 kilometer radius if they had recently activated their location,” he explained Wildon.

Stanislav Seleznevlawyer of Agoraa human rights group that has represented thousands of people who have come under Kremlin scrutiny since 2005, told WIRED that he has “absolutely no doubt” that the Kremlin is exploiting the Telegram API on a large scale.

The Kremlin is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to bolster its internet infrastructure, including those that automatically scan social media platforms for illegal content, according to reports. For Seleznevalso is working with Russian tech companies like SeusLabwhich processes billions of social media pages and instant messaging chats a day, to build detailed profiles of users based on their “political activity.”

Still, huge numbers of Russians remain dependent on Telegram, and its growth at home and around the world has been spurred by the war in Ukraine rather than deterred.

“People still trust Telegram for some reason,” he said Andrey Soldatov, a freelance journalist who has been investigating the Russian security services for more than 20 years. “But i do not know why'”.

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Brian Adam
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