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Telegram: data security and privacy

Controversies, security, privacy… here’s what you need to know before downloading Telegram.

Telegram: a controversial app

The Telegram application was created in 2013 by Nikolai and Pavel Durov, two opponents of the Russian government. At the time, the application’s purpose was to communicate far from the FSB’s eye, the country’s secret service.  

Because the application was built on values of freedom of expression and the fight against oppression, it also attracted an audience it did not expect. The application is known to be used by some of the most radical political movements in the world.  

The news of January 2021 successfully illustrates the paradox from which the application suffers. On the one hand, Telegram was at the top of app store downloads, counting 25 million new users only three days after the updated WhatsApp terms of use.  

On the other end, this increase was also attributed to another event. As The New York Times explainsFar-right conspiracy theorists and insurrectionists have been flocking to Telegram in recent weeks after being banished from the big American social media platforms following the storming of the Capitol building in Washington by a mob supporting President Donald J. Trump, who himself was cut off from Facebook and Twitter

Telegram: more than a messaging app, a social network

In another article, The New York Times explains that Telegram is particularly popular for extreme movements because it mimics social media. 

Telegram offers three main features: 

  • Conversations: they are private because they are encrypted end-to-end.  
  • Channels: they are public or private and can be followed by an unlimited number of users.  
  • Groups: they are public or private. A maximum of 200,000 users can communicate with each other within them. By way of comparison, it’s 1,000 on Signal and 256 on WhatsApp. The reason WhatsApp’s number is so low is, as Vox explains, because “After its role amplifying violence in India and Myanmar, Facebook-owned WhatsApp limited groups’ ability to forward messages to other groups in order to stop the spread of misinformation.“ 

It should be noted that Telegram tries its best to fight against the presence of extreme groups within its ranks. Its co-founder, Pavel Durov, declared having “dropped hundreds of calls for violence on public channels“ in January 2021.  

Telegramare the conversations private? 

Telegram uses end-to-end encryption for its private conversations (channels, groups, messages, audio, video calls, media, and files exchanged). Technical information related to encryption can be found here

Note that Telegram is offering up to $300,000 to anyone who successfully breaks its encryption: “All submissions which result in a change of code or configuration are eligible for bounties, ranging from $100 to $100,000 or more, depending on the severity of the issue.” 

Telegram: what data is monetized  

Also, within its Privacy Policy, Telegram explains: “We don’t use your data to show you ads. We only store the data that Telegram needs to function as a secure and feature-rich messaging service.” 

An approach that could perhaps evolve in 2021. On its site, the application states that “Telegram will introduce monetization in 2021 to pay for the infrastructure and developer salaries.”   

Pavel Durov, the co-founder, explains it as follows: “A project of our size needs at least a few hundred million dollars per year to keep going. For most of Telegram’s history, I paid for the expenses of the company from my personal savings. However, with its current growth Telegram is on track to reach billions of users and to require appropriate funding.” 

The new operation is based on: 

  • the addition of new premium features, and therefore paid for;  
  • the creation of an advertising platform for public channels.  

It is, therefore, possible that the company’s Privacy Policy may change over the year. However, the company specifies that the messaging portions of Telegram (private and group chats) will remain ad-free.  

Telegram: where are users’ personal data stored?

According to Telegram’s Privacy Policy, the data of its European users is hosted in the Netherlands.  

The application also specifies that the data may be transferred to the parent company, Telegram Group Inc, located in the British Virgin Islands, and Telegram FZ-LLC, located in Dubai. 

Telegram: how long is a user’s data kept after the deletion of his account?

When deleting an account, all messages, media, contacts, and other related data are deleted.  

Conclusion: a success to be confirmed

In January 2021, Telegram surpassed 500 million active users. Along with Signal, it is one of the two most popular apps among disappointed WhatsApp users. 

If there is no question here of doubting Telegram’s intentions, creating its advertising platform, just like the difficulty of controlling the most radical private groups, could make it a less attractive alternative to Signal in the long term. Only time will tell… 

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