Why are governments investing in Telegram?

After Russia's sovereign wealth fund and two Abu Dhabi state funds invested millions in Telegram, some are questioning if there is a more sinister reason behind these investments. Could repressive governments be making a power play to obtain even greater control over messaging?

Earlier this year, WhatsApp informed users that their messaging app would start sharing personal data with its parent company Facebook. The move paved the way for an epiphany of sorts. Many realized that every message they sent on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp passed through one company's servers.

Digital natives are sharing less on social media. Many will feel more comfortable communicating in private channels such as messaging apps, SMS, or even emails. The lack of tracking and ability to monitor what content users share is often referred to as dark social by marketers. Off the grid activity also concerned governments that piled on the pressure of big tech companies to allow back door access that would enable authorities to read private messages.

Government-Mandated Encryption Backdoors

As a result, messaging services such as Telegram and Signal enjoyed a surge in downloads. Many argued that those who migrated from WhatsApp to Telegram gave themselves a false sense of privacy because of the lack of default end-to-end encryption. Alarm bells first appeared when UK Home Secretary Priti Patel advised that "end-to-end encryption poses an unacceptable risk to user safety & society."

When Russia's sovereign wealth fund and Abu Dhabi state fund also invested millions in Telegram, some questioned if there was a more sinister reason behind these investments. Although the surveillance of every individual was never an option in the offline world, there is increasing concern that there was a different set of rules emerging in our digital communications.

In a world where the global community seamlessly communicates via digital messaging, could repressive governments be making a power play to obtain greater control? 

What could these investments mean for Telegram's future functionality and credibility among dissidents, journalists, and other privacy-conscious users?

The story behind Telegram

Telegram was founded in 2013 by Russian-born brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov. The messenger service was initially banned in Russia after refusing to provide authorities with encryption keys to read messages. But the founders carefully navigated around local restrictions and regulations in the country by setting up bases around the world in locations such as London, Berlin, and Singapore. 

Upon realizing that it was technologically unable to stop Telegram from operating in the country, Russia performed a surprise U-turn and unblocked the app last year. With the nation's state-run Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) now one of the firm's backers, there seems to be a change of heart from the Kremlin. When asked about the RDIF investment, President Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov advised that "any successful investment that makes money is welcome."

Protecting your secret chats

Telegram quickly refuted any allegations that those buying bonds would influence the company's values. It would be business as usual, and Telegram would remain fiercely independent.

With 500 million privacy concerned users who don't like leaving a trail of digital footprints, it's easy to see why some governments might want to take a sneak peek at end-to-end encrypted secret chats.

However, Telegram insists that encryption keys are stored in multiple data centers in different jurisdictions. Although Telegram famously offers privacy features such as encryption and self-destructing messages, it's important to remember that, unlike other messaging apps, users must opt into the feature by creating a secret chat.

The choice between security and privacy

When any government asks its citizens for an encryption backdoor, they arguably ask you to choose between security and privacy. But encryption is not the bad guy. It protects our networks, devices, banking transactions, and corporate data. A backdoor opens a vulnerability that could eventually lead to large-scale threats to business and society.

It is a myth that surveillance makes society safer.

Criminals build their own encrypted tools rather than using consumer products or services. They are also more likely to use burner phones than the latest iOS or Android device. The so-called Blue Leaks incident that resulted in sensitive police documents being leaked online is a perfect example of why encryption is necessary.

Privacy-conscious users know that without end-to-end encryption, their conversations could end up in the hands of malicious actors who are focused on stealing sensitive information.

In George Orwell's fictional State of Oceania, it was telescreens that kept citizens under constant surveillance. Here in 2021, it's everything from doorbells and CCTV systems that act as an all-seeing eye to the always-listening digital assistants that result in your smart home working against you rather than for you.

As governments explore the creation of encryption back doors and investing in multi-platform messenger services such as Telegram, maybe we need to redefine secure messaging. Some apps track the behaviour of users, and others don't use encryption by default. In the case of Telegram, the fact it's not open source and uses a proprietary encryption protocol that isn't turned on by default could leave you thinking that it isn't as secure as it might want you to believe.

However, there is nothing to suggest that there is anything to be suspicious of or that anything will change at Telegram despite its new investors.

But the more cautious and cynical among you might sleep better at night if you opted for an alternative like Signal, which is often lauded by privacy advocates and the likes of Ed Snowden. But even with Signal, you can't use the app anonymously as you will need your phone number to register.

Despite your best efforts, dark social does not exist. No matter how hard you try, you will never be completely anonymous online, and removing yourself from all big tech's influence and living off the grid is just the result of looking back at the past through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. Or is it?

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