Messaging app Telegram when first burst onto the scene, it was dubbed as an alternative of WhatsApp as it was much more secure (end-to-end encrypted which since then WhatsApp has adapted too) and provided a better user experience. However, the messaging app has now become a safe haven for pedophilia, pornography, child trafficking, and other illegal activities. Safe to say, Telegram can be called ‘Dark Web lite’ for all the shady businesses one can conduct on the platform.
And now a disturbing report has come into light where the dark underbelly of telegram has been completely exposed. According to a report in India Today, many deepfake bots available on Telegram are generating fake nudes of women using their social media photos on user requests. These photos are then circulated on Telegram channels among users, sometimes for money.
The discovery of this ecosystem was led by researchers at a security firm called Sensity. The firm says it is dedicated to spotting visual threats such as the spread of deepfake technology. According to the Sensity’s researchers, more than 100,000 images were being exchanged in public Telegram channels as of July this year. This stat does not include the images that were generated by deepfake bots but were never shared.
Sensing the gravity of the entire issue, the Bombay High Court has asked the government to gather information and prepare a report on the AI bots.
Privacy—the sales pitch of Telegram
Telegram was founded in 2013 by Russian brothers named Pavel and Nikolai Durov. The fact that it was a ‘non-American’ entity and provided enhanced privacy features allowed a quick word of mouth marketing of the app. Those fearing the Western apps like WhatsApp and Facebook messenger for having secret government backdoors quickly latched onto the app and thus began the quick ascendency of the app.
Telegram has more robust security features than WhatsApp with fewer limits on the number of people who can join a channel. According to Telegram’s website, the app allows users to create private groups comprising up to 200,000 members as well as public channels that can be accessed by anyone who has the app downloaded. Its heightened privacy, broadcast potential, and lack of censorship in private groups can be exploited by malicious actors to disseminate disinformation.
These features greatly inhibit the moderation of disinformation on the platform. Extra privacy and no moderation—together this combination offers fodder for propaganda, political mudslinging, and hate speech which makes Telegram a breeding ground for hate campaigns.
Hate speeches, communal riots, piracy—the bane of Telegram
Telegram, in essence, is a ticking time bomb for a country like India as it has the capability to fuel communal riots. It is also a hub of illegally downloaded movies and TV series. The new second season of Amazon Prime’s Mirzapur that was released on October 22 has already been leaked on numerous Telegram channels. The producers and makers of the movies suffer huge financial losses when their creation is leaked like that.
And if we extend the ambit of Telegram outside India, the app has some serious problems that have caused the world governments to take notice.
According to a report in Forbes, a research study was conducted on Telegram users in 2020 to analyze the prevalence of hate-speech towards Jews and Blacks. The results of the study were shocking as 57% of the messages referencing Jewish Americans and 26% of the messages referencing Black Americans contained derogatory language.
ISIS using telegram
But this is not all it, Telegram has leveled up a notch and is now providing terrorists a safe spot to plot and propagate their evil ideas. According to several media reports, ISIS has shifted its propaganda distribution to Telegram from Twitter, where its accounts have been repeatedly shut down. The ISIS terrorists behind the 2015 Paris attacks used Telegram to spread propaganda. ISIS also used the app to recruit the perpetrators of the Christmas market attack in Berlin in 2016 and similarly, there are numerous instances where the terrorists have exploited the app for their
A new study by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found that English-speaking ISIS supporters “exploit Telegram’s suite of features to communicate with like-minded supporters across the world, disseminate official and unofficial (ISIS) media, and provide instructional material for operations.”
Law enforcement and intelligence officials across the world have been concerned about the use of the app by extremists. It’s encrypted and said to be near impossible to track.
Russia and Iran banned Telegram
In 2018, when Facebook was implicated for massive data breach involving Cambridge Analytica, Telegram looked like a champion of security when it refused to collaborate with the Russian government to divulge user data. Telegram’s refusal to provide access to encryption keys ran afoul of Russia’s anti-terrorism laws, which require messaging services to give authorities access to decrypt messages. Eventually, Moscow retaliated by blocking the app. It was only a few months back (in June) that Russia lifted the ban over the app. Iran too has banned Telegram citing that it helps “armed uprisings”.
The Indian government so far has been sitting unconcerned and looks unperturbed by the events happening on the shady app that is Telegram. If India indeed wants to join the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence group and make the world a better place when it comes to regulating the social media and search engine platforms then it needs to start getting its own house in order.
The Union government and the officials of Telegram need to sit across the table and formulate the regulatory laws so that the content on the app can be moderated and if possible a backdoor ‘access’ be provided to the intelligence agencies, in case a terrorist episode is waiting to be unfurled.