Extremism and Encryption: Terrorists on Telegram

The 21st century, and the dawn of globalization, have spawned remarkable inventions in communication, allowing people from around the world to communicate with one another.  While this is clearly an extremely beneficial technology for everything from cross-cultural understanding and global education, to commerce, international politics, and journalism, it is not without its challenges.  The dark underbelly of globalized communications and social media lies in the illicit world of human trafficking, drug trading, and terrorist plotting, for these new forms of communication connect people from around the world who have common interests, both good and nefarious.

After a series of high profile critiques claiming that social media sites allow for the spread of terrorist propaganda and enable terrorist organization and communication, Twitter and Facebook have both clarified their policies regarding material posted to their sites, and detailed actions that they have taken to combat the spread of violence.  Twitter Rules indicate that, “you may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism” and that one’s account may be temporarily or permanently suspended for doing so.  Facebook has a similar policy, and has expressed through their Director of Global Policy Management and Counterterrorism Policy Manager that “social media should not be a place where terrorists have a voice.”

Facebook and Twitter are only two social media sites, however.  What happens when a social media platform doesn’t have such a clear policy?

According to a new report produced by the Counter Extremism Project, and highlighted by the Homeland Security News Wire, Telegram is now the app of choice for terrorist propaganda, communication, and organization.  The Counter Extremism Project declares that, “Terrorist and extremist groups use encrypted application Telegram to recruit new members, fundraise, incite to violence, and even coordinate terrorist activity,” because,

Telegram’s messaging application has both public-facing and private components. This flexible interface enables extremists to do everything from self-promotion, brand development and propaganda dissemination, to secret plotting of attacks outside detection or interference from law enforcement.

Telegram has both public ‘channels’ and private ‘chats;’ while anyone can subscribe to a public channel to receive the latest content posted there, private chats utilize end-to-end encryption, and are roughly equivalent to the service offered by apps such as WhatsApp, Line, and iMessage, though Telegram touts itself as “faster and way more secure.”  The dual nature of the platform and its encryption makes it particularly well suited to terrorist activity: terrorist networks and organizations can maintain public channels to initially engage with their followers, and then take more sensitive conversations about planning to a private ‘chat,’ each of which can contain up to 5000 members.

In the past, Telegram found itself in the hot seat for its decision not to moderate public channels or private chats; its founder Pavel Durov dismissed concerns about terrorist usage with a discussion about right to privacy in September 2015.  However, when investigators turned up evidence that terrorists had used Telegram to plot and communicate about the Paris attacks in November 2015, Durov backtracked, and Telegram’s policy is now to, “block terrorist (e.g. ISIS-related) bots and channels, [but] not block anybody who peacefully expresses alternative opinions.”  However, private chats, illegal content or not, are off limits, per Telegram’s policy, which says, “All Telegram chats and group chats are private amongst their participants. We do not process any requests related to them.”

The report produced by the Counter Extremism Project has a number of helpful infographics and pictures, including one which was circulated by the Islamic State in January 2015 and describes the security of various messaging applications.  The report concludes with a call for Telegram and its founder Pavel Durov to do more to prevent the spread of terrorist propaganda on the platform, and to crack down on the private chats used by members of terrorist organizations to plan and coordinate attacks.

Clearly, there is a lively debate over the right to privacy versus the right to security in this era of globalization, and it remains to be seem how Telegram and other social media applications will continue to handle terrorist activity on their platforms, and whether they will update their policies in response.

To read more about terrorism and social media, check out the Homeland Security Digital Library Featured Topics, such as:

Cyber Crime & National Security
Cyber Policy
Jihadist/Islamist Domestic Terrorism  
Domestic Terrorism: Extremism 
Lone Wolf Terrorism 
Domestic Terrorism/Extremism: Single Issue/Special Interest

Or, read this On The Homefront article about Jihad 2.0: The Power of Social Media in Terrorist Recruitment.