Since the violent storming of Capitol Hill and subsequent ban of former U.S. President Donald Trump from Facebook and Twitter, the removal of Parler from Amazon's servers, and the de-platforming of incendiary right-wing content, messaging services Telegram and Signal have seen a deluge of new users. In January alone, Telegram reported 90 million new accounts. Its founder, Pavel Durov, described this as "the largest digital migration in human history." Signal reportedly doubled its user base to 40 million people and became the most downloaded app in 70 countries. The two services rely on encryption to protect the privacy of user communication, which has made them popular with protesters seeking to conceal their identities against repressive governments in places like Belarus, Hong Kong, and Iran. But the same encryption technology has also made them a favored communication tool for criminals and terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
To see why many are alarmed, we don't have to look far back. In 2015, Telegram saw growing use by the Islamic State. Previously, the group had relied on Twitter and Facebook to recruit new members, coordinate activities, and promote its ideology. After the two public platforms finally banned Islamic State content and began taking it down, the group turned to Telegram and similar services to facilitate communications, including recruitment and planning terror attacks.
Telegram's coordination with law enforcement in response to its use by the Islamic State offers a blueprint for countering the platform's extreme right-wing groups, including insurrectionists. Even though Telegram lacks the ability to monitor encrypted private channels, it eventually removed nearly all Islamic State accounts. This step drastically curtailed the Islamic State's ability to use Telegram's encrypted messaging. Along the way, the company—which long rejected cooperating with law enforcement—developed a collaborative relationship with Europol, the European Union's transnational investigative force. Formally known as the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, Europol investigators encouraged Telegram to remove Islamic State content without resorting to the heavy-handed legal measures against which the company has been so allergic.
Telegram offers users two levels of encrypted communication. Its services, which include groups, channels, and messages, can be either public (searchable by username) or private (by invitation only). Although Telegram itself can theoretically view public services, secret chats are encrypted end to end. This means that no one—not even Telegram executives—can view these private messages. To make communication even more secure, Telegram offers users the option to set their messages to self-destruct after they are read so any record of the communication disappears into the ether. While Telegram's terms of service ban the promotion of violence, they are only enforceable in connection with publicly viewable channels.
Telegram's unregulated nature sparked fears when Islamic State members migrated to the platform en masse after they were banned from Twitter in 2015. Observers of online Islamic State activity reported that the group openly used Telegram's public services to spread propaganda, recruit new members, and deliver instructions for carrying out attacks on specific targets. Islamic State members also communicated with one another in secret, encrypted chats. One of the perpetrators of the 2015 Paris terror attacks had downloaded Telegram on his phone on the day of the rampage and may have used the service to coordinate the operation. After the attack, the Islamic State used Telegram to claim responsibility. Similarly, following the 2016 truck attack of a Berlin Christmas market, the Islamic State not only used Telegram to claim credit but also to release a video where the perpetrator vowed to kill Westerners. Likewise, the Islamic State gunman who carried out the 2017 attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul received instructions from a Syrian member of the group via Telegram.
In 2016, Durov said he was horrified by terrorist activity on his platform and that he was trying to prevent it, but he reminded authorities that the platform's technology made it impossible for him to reveal the encryption key for any private chats even if he wanted to. He also pointed out that if he banned the Islamic State from Telegram, they could start their own messaging app "within a month or so." Durov ominously added, "This is the world of technology, and it's impossible to stop them at this point."
Governments around the world pressured Telegram to block Islamic State content and cooperate with investigations into terror suspects using the platform. In Washington, members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee declared that "no private company should allow its services to be used to promote terrorism and plan out attacks that spill innocent blood." French authorities obtained a court order to try to force Telegram to provide information about terrorist activity on the platform. After an Islamic State attack in St. Petersburg in 2017, the Russian government threatened to ban Telegram.
Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's program on democracy, conflict, and governance and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration.
Sarah Gordon is a research assistant in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's program on democracy, conflict, and governance.
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