The BBC’s World Service has started sending twice-daily encrypted news content to Russian speakers using the same Telegram mobile messaging app it recently emerged has become a software favourite among ISIS propagandists.
From 21 November the Corporation turned on the story feed from its bbcrussian.com service, hoping to attract some of that site’s 5.5 million readers to the secure platform founded in 2013. It’s not the first time the BBC has used Telegram after launching an identical feed for Persian speakers earlier this year that has attracted 160,000 users, presumably all in Iran.
Despite its malevolent intentions, adoption by ISIS followed an oddly similar path to the BBC. Despite the best efforts of Telegram’s founders to block access, Berlin-based Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, estimates of the number of ISIS sympathisers using the app still ranges from 5,000 to 12,000.
It's another example of how an innovative app offering the right features at the right time can rise from obscurity to hyper-popularity in a matter of months – Telegram has well north of 50 million users and growing delivering at least 12 billion messages each day. It also shows how wildly different organisations find themselves migrating from conventional Internet channels such as websites and public social media as part of an intense battle to bypass today’s state surveillance and control.
Telegram is an extremely clever piece of software, less an app (the bit people see) as an entire platform that can deliver content (messages, video, large files) using strong encryption to almost any type of computer at zero cost. The range of supported platforms is a big feature, taking in not only Windows, Mac and Linux but Android, iPhone, Blackberry but even the unfashionable Windows Phone. There is also a portable version that will run from a USB stick.
It is incredibly simple to use, no questions asked. There is no account to sign up for, anathema to the new wave of privacy-conscious platforms that are starting to pop up in Telegram’s wake. All a user needs to supply is a mobile phone number and an address of a ‘broadcasting’ service, for example @bbcrussian for the BBC’s Russian language feed.
Beyond that it’s a case of reaching out to individual users on the service or joining a group distribution list, which can now have up to 1,000 members each. Sign-up takes seconds.
It is not the only app vying for users although most of the new rivals are aiming to make money attracting paying enterprise users to the idea of secure messaging and voice.
You can understand why organisations as radically different as the BBC and ISIS would want to use it – Telegram’s BBC users in Russia and Iran receive content in an encrypted form (symmetric AES, RSA 2048 and Diffie–Hellman key exchange) using keys that aren’t held on an intermediary server. The system also uses something called ‘perfect forward secrecy’ which means that even if a key does fall into the hands of a surveillance organisation sniffing the computer or moble device that can’t be used to unlock past communications.
What aids freedom of speech also, of course, aids anyone. The same security that protects users in search of uncensored news makes it incredibly hard for police and intelligence services to track terrorist sympathisers, something that is starting to give this class of app some image problems.
This issue of the use and misuse of privacy software is far from new. In the early 1990s, encryption icon Phil Zimmermann (who later co-founded Silent Circle, now embedded in the secure Silent Phone smartphone) fought a long and famous battle with the US Clinton administration after building encryption into a program called Pretty Good Privacy that the Feds worried they couldn’t snoop on.
What is certain is that for the time being the rise of secure messaging and content apps is probably unstoppable.
“One of our key digital objectives is to reach people in the online/digital spaces that they are active in. There is plenty of data that shows that hundreds of millions of people globally are using chat/messaging platforms,” BBC World Service mobile editor, Trushar Barot, told Techworld by email.
Barot pointed us to a paper he co-authored that estimates chat applications to have a user base that exceeds social media. It’s a trend that’s crept up on most of the mainstream media which, BBC aside, is almost entirely absent from these new channels.
And his expectations for the Russian service? “We’ll see how the numbers go and make a further assessment after a few months. However, we feel it is at least viable in Iran, based on the experience of our BBC Persian service. It has had over 160,000 direct subscribers to its channel within a month of launch and we know that some of the items we post in that channel are reaching up to 800,000 unique Telegram users,” said Barot.
“We will be guided by where we think the app is most popular. We are innovating on a number of other chat platforms in different countries – we go wherever the biggest audiences/users are.”
The intelligence services in Russia, Iran and, yes, the UK and the US, won’t let it rest there and will doubtless comb the platform for weaknesses or find ways to attack its users more directly. It will require a lot more effort than monitoring Twitter accounts, websites or even, ironically, the darkweb that is supposedly a haven for criminality.
Telegram is well-engineered, legitimate, and, apparently, massively popular. The censors and intelligence services are often portrayed as having an almost unlimited power to subvert what was once naively talked of as the liberating power of the Internet to encourage free thought, brave ideas and, sometimes, unwanted actions. Increasingly, this is less a battle of wills fought in public than one playing out in private through ciphers.