Exploring the unique story of a messaging app with the most loyal user base

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Launched in 2013, Telegram entered an already oversaturated market which didn’t stop them from standing out among other messaging apps. Almost immediately they started to change the rules of the game. They won everyone over by declaring privacy of correspondence to be their top priority. No other service has ever promised this level of security therefore the huge market was basically theirs for the taking. Before long their competitors responded with adopting protective measures against Telegram expansion to avoid losing customers.

Meanwhile, Telegram dominated the field poaching users from social networks and gradually turning into a media platform. In February 2016 Telegram CEO Pavel Durov announced that the service had reached the 100 million monthly users milestone. It only took them two years to double this number. It may seem nothing compared to billions that some other projects have but taking into account a combination of factors listed above, Telegram became probably the most influential one.

Monthly active users in millions

It was ranked ninth among other popular apps:

  • WhatsApp, no longer a trendsetter, copies best features other service introduce like Telegram’s end-to-end encryption.
  • Facebook forced its users to download their new messenger app which obviously doesn’t scream ‘market leader’ because it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Their privacy policy leaves a lot to be desired making Facebook almost an outsider.
  • Viber and Skype that are surprisingly still not dead.

It leaves Telegram the only contender for industry leadership in a similar way to how Apple took over the smartphone market. But with great power comes great responsibility. As a trendsetter, Telegram had to make controversial decisions that would affect the whole industry.

So far, 2018 has been a difficult year for Telegram. Let’s examine the cause.

An attack coming from all sides

Telegram’s problems were the direct consequence of the app’s initial success. Capitalizing on Telegram’s reputation as hack-proof platform, the project has become extremely popular in totalitarian countries. In fact, in Iran it had an estimated 40 millions active users by the end of 2017, which amounts to around half of the 80 million population. However, in January 2018 Iranian government blocked Telegram and other social media apps as a ‘safety measure’.

The messenger’s performance in Russia isn’t so impressive with 10 million users as of September 2017. Two years ago FSB has successfully lobbied for the introduction of an Orwellian Yarovaya bill which gave them a skeleton key to every secret door. Basically, all the services operating in Russia are now compelled by law to present their encryption keys if requested by the federal agency.

In order to prove their intentions were serious, they needed to make an example of someone which is why many services including LinkedIn were blocked. In 2017 they came for Telegram and demanded to turn over its encryption keys but Durov flat out refused. Telegram has been fined $14,000 by the court — a decision they filed to appeal against, but to no avail. On March 20, 2018, they were officially informed that the encryption keys must be provided to law enforcement agencies within 15 days and that failure to comply will result in prosecution. This deadline expired on April 4. As a result, the lawsuit to block Telegram messenger has been filed by Russia’s media censor.

In addition to government interference, Telegram faces another enemy — conspiracy theorists. In January 2018, Russian designer and blogger Artemy Lebedev declared Telegram ‘the most successful project of the Russian special forces’. He wrote on his blog that the app is essentially a gold mine of information and all the correspondence there is constantly monitored.

As a web-designer, Lebedev is a highly respected professional but when it comes to blogging, he’s mostly famous for his provocative statements. Obviously, if Telegram succumbs to government pressure, conspiracy theories will be debunked. If authorities hesitate to block the app, it would add substance to the rumor.

Furthermore, as if unable to pass the stress test, on March 29 Telegram suffered a massive failure with users across Europe and the Middle East reported connection problems. The app was down for more than 3 hours due to the power outage in a data center. The Russian Internet regulator Roskomnadzor claimed that the agency had nothing to do with it.

Unfortunately, Artemy Lebedev didn’t clarify what exactly led him to believe Telegram was being controlled by the secret services. He managed to hit the app’s weak spot anyhow. The thing is, any sense of digital privacy that users may have can only be based on blind faith. In reality, we can never feel certain that our correspondence isn’t being monitored and that our data isn’t being collected by some government agency. We can’t be sure Telegram won’t openly or secretly collaborate with the authoritarian regime. We can only trust our instincts and pray nothing bad happens.

Deconstructing Telegram

Deconstruction doesn’t mean destruction. The idea is to dissect the concept and analyze each fragment individually to hopefully rebuild a better version of what it was before.

By deconstructing Telegram, we will develop deeper understanding of its components and separate myth from reality. We’ll be able to analyse the project not only from hardware and software side, but also taking human factor into account. As a result, we’ll discover the limits of what’s possible for the app itself and for its users.

What fuels faith?

Telegram’s reputation is largely attributed to its CEO Pavel Durov’s public image.

A political refugee story

Durov’s problems with the Russian authorities began in 2011 when he refused to block the pages of political opposition activists. On December 8 the extent of the conflict has become public knowledge. In response to an official FSB request regarding several protest event pages and groups, Durov posted a picture that immediately became a meme:

The next two years were marked by deterioration of human rights situation in Russia. Subsequently, the government pressure on media increased considerably. Durov addressed the intensity of the power struggle on his VK page:

— On December 13, 2013 the FSB demanded that we disclose personal information on the leaders of Euromaidan [the Kiev-based movement that organized protests against the regime of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich]. Our response to such requests has always been ‘no,’ as Russian jurisdiction does not cover VKontakte’s Ukrainian users. Turning Ukrainians’ personal data over to Russian authorities would not only have been illegal, it would also have been disloyal to the millions of Ukrainian citizens who trusted us. I had to sacrifice a lot. For instance, I sold my stake in the company in order to keep making right decisions. But I regret nothing — personally, I believe protection of personal data is worth even more than that. Since December 2013, I no longer had my property, but at least I kept something more important which is clear conscience and moral values I’d always protect.

Consistently articulated views

Durov has always been advocating for libertarianism, reforming Russian education systems, tax exemption to communications industry, suspension of the visa system, end of conscription, reduction of customs duties, implementation of regional autonomy and transparent legal system with open jury trials. All of that adds credibility to his image.

Summer 2017 saw a few channels break stories of Durov’s alleged anarchism. Telegram was accused of facilitating terror attacks that were supposedly plotted using the app. Russia-24 news anchor Dmitry Kiselev noted that it was ‘transforming into a communication system for terrorists’. The head of Roskomnadzor Alexander Zharov urged Durov to ‘come to his senses’ and hand over Telegram’s encryption keys. Durov responded:

— This demand not only violates the Russian Constitution which entitles citizens to privacy of correspondence, it also demonstrates ignorance of the subject. In the year 2017, sensitive information exchange is protected by end-to-end encryption, and the Telegram team doesn’t have any keys we could share. These keys are only stored on the users’ devices. Although Telegram pioneered the technology, today all popular messaging apps use end-to-end encryption, including WhatsApp, Viber, iMessage, and even Facebook Messenger.

Blocking of Telegram won’t make the job of terrorists and drug dealers easier — dozens of other end-to-end encrypted messengers will remain at their disposal (in addition to VPNs). There isn’t a single country in the world that blocks all available messengers or VPN services. In order to defeat terrorism through blocks, you’d have to block the internet.

Later he added:

— The timing of the claims that Telegram was allegedly used to plot a terrorist attack three months ago is suspicious. It would be sad if Russian intelligence services were exploiting this devastating tragedy as a pretext to increase their influence and control over the population.

Unfortunately, such communication tools as Telegram or WhatsApp can’t create obstacles that would only affect terrorists. Encryption algorithm can either protect everyone equally or put everyone at risk. Eliminating the use of end-to-end encryption in a single county will leave millions of people exposed to hacker attacks and extortion by corrupt officials.

Moreover, a weaker encryption on all messaging apps will undermine the national security since foreign intelligence services would inevitably get an access to Russian citizens’ correspondence as well. The terrorist threat won’t go away — as recent events in Paris have shown, you don’t need encryption to carry out the attack, a couple of disposable phones and simple texting will do.

Never yielding to pressure from authorities

Outside of Russia Durov apparently feels less vulnerable to threats as he adopted an uncompromising stance on dealing with government meddling. It takes courage that few can afford.

— On March 13, 2014 state prosecutors demanded that I close down Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption group and threatened to block VKontakte if I didn’t. I didn’t do that in December 2011, and I certainly won’t do it now. We won’t block this or any other page just because we’re told to. The freedom to disseminate information is an undeniable right in a postindustrial society. Otherwise, the mere existence of VKontakte is meaningless.

Look at Zuckerbeg, Brin or Tim Cook. As liberal as they may be, they can’t disregard the interests of their shareholders. Sometimes it means bending over backwards for foreign governments. For example, China’s restrictions on foreign companies are quite tight. Western businesses may be put in a difficult position where they’re trying to save face while renouncing their principles in exchange for Chinese money.

Provocative attitude

Durov tends to express his views in the most resolute manner. Back in the days before he left Vkontakte, Durov got caught up in a corporate war when Mail.ru, a major shareholder, attempted to absorb the social network by purchasing 100% shares. In response, Durov literally gave them a middle finger:

The struggle ended in April 2012 with Durov convincing other co-founders not to sell their shares.

Six years later, upon entering a new phase of his life with Telegram, he made sure to preserve his integrity. The dark clouds were now gathering over his new project. Roskomnadzor, his archenemy, has repeatedly threatened to block Telegram if they fail to comply with censorship demands. These attempts at intimidation were met with indifference. Durov’s reply was straightforward:

— Telegram is driven by the same principles throughout the world. Even in Iran, where Facebook and Twitter are blocked while Telegram has some 40 million active users, not a single byte of private data was shared with the government. We won’t make exceptions for a single country just to maintain market share there.

This, together with little concern towards financial risks of engaging in a conflict with the State, however enticing its market potential may be, paints Durov as a modern-day Guy Fawkes, a notorious anarchist icon. You just can’t help believing he won’t spy on you or leak your personal information to a third party.

Product marketing

Although Pavel Durov’s personality plays a paramount role in Telegram’s PR and marketing efforts, here are some equally important factors:

  • Legend

In an interview with New York Times he said that the idea for Telegram came to him the same day a Russian SWAT team had appeared at his door. He wanted to call his brother but realized he had no secure means of communication him. Which means it has to be created. That’s how Telegram started. An early version of the app’s software came out in 2013 only available on iOS. Then it was launched on other platforms including Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Linux, Windows, OS X.

  • Positioning

When on August 14, 2013 Telegram became available on the App Store, its description read:

Security. Telegram messages can’t be viewed by third parties like your Internet provider.

As a result, Telegram was one of the first messaging apps to focus on privacy. Immediately after it was released, the development team announced that it was not only protected against criminal activity, but also against secret service surveillance going as far as introducing a ‘secret chat’ feature in 2013. Facebook and WhatsApp followed suit in 2016.

  • Boldness

In order to prove their technology sustainable and more, the development team offered $200,000 in BTC to the first person to break Telegram’ encrypted protocol. This move drew the attention of the media. And even though the fuss has died down since then, vulnerability assessments are still conducted routinely.

What incites mistrust?

The biggest weakness of the system’s architecture

Safety concerns around Telegram aren’t exactly baseless. In 2013 an article on Habrahabr was published detailing Telegram’s flaw that allows to access someone’s message history if the user in question hasn’t turned two step verification on.

In fact, most of Telegram’s issues are attributed to the fact that each account is associated with a mobile number. In May 2017, two of Russian opposition leaders’ accounts were reported to be hacked into. Both received notifications saying that their accounts were used to sign in on an unknown Linux device. It subsequently transpired that the incident involved a successful interception of the SMS codes sent to their phone numbers. Later they accused the mobile network operator whose services they both used of involvement in the breach.

Last year a former Telegram employee cast another shadow of a doubt over the app’s flawless encryption algorithm. Anton Rosenberg claimed that following his conflict with Pavel’s brother Nikolay Durov, he lost his entire chat history. Even though Anton failed to sufficiently substantiate his claims, the story had made quite a big splash.

In summer 2016, William Turton in his article ‘Why you should stop using Telegram right now’ insisted the messenger is not as secure as the company’s marketing team might lead us to believe. The biggest problem Telegram has is that it doesn’t encrypt chats by default, users need to turn on the setting manually.

It’s not that bad, is it?

Markus Ra, one of the Telegram employees, tore the Gizmodo article to shreds stating that its author deliberately confused encryption and end-to-end encryption. In reality, all data is encrypted. Secret Chats use end-to-end encryption whereas Cloud Chats use server-client encryption. To protect the data that is not covered by end-to-end encryption, Telegram uses a unique distributed infrastructure.

He also reaffirmed Telegram’s focus on people’s privacy and freedom of expression.

Looking for balance

Overall, everything looks good right now. We made a list of pros and cons of the app and examined its flaws in detail. For what it’s worth, people seem to still have faith in Telegram. Now let’s ask ourselves whether we could reconfigure the app’s structure to make it work better. At least in theory. Is it possible to imagine a perfect security system that would be immune to human error? Professionals say that the element of trust which is beyond subjective assessment still remains one of the strongest factors to the project’s performance. There’s is no such thing as absolute security.

Is there a possibility that blockchain-based technologies will make communication tools more secure and private? That doesn’t seem to be the case because it functions more as an infrastructure ensuring data integrity. The issue of security must be addressed in a comprehensive manner, otherwise there would be no security at all.

If we wanted to cover all aspects related to the rise of Telegram, we’d have to write a very long book. Maybe even more than one book. Telegram has already become a global phenomenon while it was still just a messaging service, untokenized and unblocked. It’s time to recognize it for what it is before they launch an ICO, before they hit 500 million users, before something unpredictable happens. Although it should come as no surprise that the Russian court has ruled to block Telegram after it had missed a deadline of 4 April to turn over the encruption keys. The request from Roskomnadzor was approved after an 18-minute hearing on Friday. The decision is ordered to be enforced immediately. However, it may take another month to come into effect after Telegram exhausts the appeal process.

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