‘The Kremlin has entered the chat’: how to protect your personal data on Telegram and avoid the bait of propaganda
April 11, 2024

‘The Kremlin has entered the chat’: how to protect your personal data on Telegram and avoid the bait of propaganda

The “InfoBridge” project of 24 TV Ukraine highlights the dangers of Telegram – a popular and user-friendly messenger, which can be both an important source of information and a breeding ground for fake news and source of repression.

How can you access truthful information if you are living in a temporarily occupied territory? Which messenger is the best for communicating with your family? How can you protect your personal data? We talk about all these issues in this latest episode of the “InfoBridge”.

According to a recent independent survey, Ukrainians rely heavily on Telegram channels to get news during wartime.

  • 72% of Ukrainians use Telegram to get information or news, followed by Facebook and YouTube.
  • The possibility of fast access to high-priority news, bots that allow you to get detailed instructions, small online stores, and calls and messaging in private chats and groups are the key features that inspired Ukrainians to use Telegram in 2024.

However, as the audience for quick access to daily news increased, so did the threats, including fraud, illegal content, cyberbullying, tracking, and information manipulation and propaganda, which can be often seen on Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels.

What is Telegram and who founded it?

Telegram was developed by Pavel Durov. He is the founder of the Russian social network VKontakte – a kind of an analogue to the American Facebook. In 2013, Durov developed the multi-platform Telegram messenger with supposedly secret chats, using the money earned from the sale of VKontakte to Putin’s cronies.

In the 11 years of its existence, the application has gained considerable popularity across the world. Some people believe that Telegram is used only in post-Soviet countries, but this is not true.

In January 2021, Telegram was the most downloaded non-gaming application worldwide, with 24 per cent of downloads coming from India, followed by Indonesia at 10 per cent. And a year later, the global portal Statista published statistics for 2022.

India still accounted for the most downloads, followed by Russia, Indonesia, the USA, Brazil, Egypt, and Vietnam. The list also includes the EU countries: France, Spain, Germany, and Italy.

“Telegram is the most popular messenger in urban Ukraine. After a decade of misleading marketing and press, most people there believe it’s an ‘encrypted app’. The reality is the opposite – Telegram is by default a cloud database with a plaintext copy of every message everyone has ever sent/received,” explains the founder of Signal – a truly encrypted messaging service – Moxie Marlinspike.  

The Telegram messenger is really user-friendly. It has a good interface, and you can intuitively guess how to communicate with your family and follow information channels. However, the safety and security of data can be questioned. And here are some alarming facts.

This is what the persecution of the authors of anonymous Telegram channels looks like in Russia. In one case, the administrator of one of the Moscow public pages was detained for allegedly spreading fake news stories about the Russian army, that is, truthful information on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.

And here you can see the author of another Telegram channel, who is undergoing court proceedings allegedly for the extortion of money. And these cases have one thing in common: the administrators should have remained anonymous. Where did the authorities get information on these persons, their location, and an access to confidential data that Telegram promises to protect?

“The closed nature of Telegram is the factor that may put users on their guard. The company does not have a representative office, which can be contacted by public authorities for cooperation. Moreover, it is unknown how many people use the messenger in total and how many Ukrainians are among them. This information is non-public, and DOU [Ukraine’s largest IT organisation] was unable to obtain it from the company’s employees even on an anonymous basis,” says a DOU investigation.

Wired online magazine highlighted another case of leaking data to Russian security services. The article, titled “The Kremlin has entered the chat”, tells the story of Russian opposition activist Marina Matsapulina, whose private Telegram group chat was read by security forces.

“Symmetric encryption, that is, a standard code that can be intercepted, is installed for any group chat. If the smartphone of one of the members of a chat is seized, chat messages can be deciphered. However, this makes no sense, because if it was seized, we have access to the messages. This works in the same way in other messengers. Group chats can be intercepted in any messengers,” explains cybersecurity expert Mykyta Knysh.

How can you protect your personal data on Telegram?

Does this mean that you should delete Telegram on your smartphone right away? No, you shouldn’t. If you meet specific terms and conditions for its use, the messenger will not pose a threat to your personal data. This is especially important if you are residing in a temporarily occupied territory.

The main thing is to limit the access that the application can get to everything you store on your smartphone or PC.

How to make Telegram more secure if you are residing in a temporarily occupied territory – tips from cybersecurity expert Mykyta Knysh

  • Telegram should not have access to your geolocation, contacts, and, most importantly, to photos. You have to understand that you should not give Telegram access to your smartphone and camera if you do not use them.
  • Do not give the messenger access to your contacts so as not to endanger your family. If your chat is important or dangerous, set auto-delete messages.
  • An “empty account” can also pose a threat. Therefore, in order to confuse occupants, you can create a “meaningful” chat to make it look believable. For example, you can create several chats: with your girlfriend, your mother, who asks if you have taken a meal, or other family members. You can also follow several news channels. All the other chats should be archived or have the self-destruct timer enabled.
  • Provide fewer personal data. Hide your phone number from people you don’t know. Make your online status and profile photo, if you have one, unavailable to strangers.
  • In the “Calls” section, in addition to choosing exactly who can call you, you can hide your IP address. Disabling peer-to-peer will relay all calls through Telegram servers to avoid revealing your IP address.

You can perform all these actions in the “Settings” section of the application. And these recommendations could be useful not only for Telegram but also for other messengers that you use.

Disinformation on Telegram

Even before the beginning of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Telegram had served as a platform for the distribution of news. Unfortunately, however, a lot of suspicious channels that spread information manipulation and disinformation have appeared on the platform.  Information has become fast, easily accessible, and local. Almost every city or town has its own Telegram channel, where they talk about the challenges faced by a community and its latest news.

In the temporarily occupied territories, these local Telegram channels are almost the only way to get important information and share your problems in the comments section. However, news articles on social problems often contain a lot of disinformation.

The key objective of these news articles is to mislead and spread despair among those who believe in Ukraine, as well as to distort unbiased information.

  • These articles include news on the fact that the West has “awakened” and is stopping or will soon stop supporting Ukraine.
  • Propagandists also like conspiracy theories on the fact that assistance provided to Ukraine by different countries is just some kind of cunning game with insidious plans.
  • There are also messages stating that the West allegedly condemns the way of waging the war when Ukrainian soldiers use civilians as human shields.
  • Moreover, there are messages stating that sanctions inflict damage primarily on those who imposed them and don’t undermine Russia’s economy, etc.

These messages are most often targeted at a local community. They are also a kind of warning for Russian citizens. If they doubt the expediency of the occupation, they can read about so-called “improvements” on local Telegram channels.

An administrative service centre is allegedly being built in Melitopol. A railway station is allegedly being renovated in Mariupol. And a children’s centre has been opened in Berdiansk. And there are hundreds of such news. These messages were especially noticeable ahead of the so-called “elections” of the President of the Russian Federation. And, of course, these Telegram channels keep silent about the fact that these facilities have been destroyed or damaged by Russian invaders.

Many posts were devoted to municipal issues addressed by Russia. This is partly about the reconstruction of destroyed facilities and reports on the operation of public buildings (ambulance stations, hospitals, libraries, etc.). Telegram channels are creating a picture of the Russian authorities’ successful management in the occupied cities and towns. And this picture is contrasted with the Ukrainian one that highlights only destruction.

In such cases, you should check the description of a channel and its owner or administrator. You should also pay attention to emotionally coloured news items and not be swayed by them. If they infuriate or oppress you, this is not unbiased information, but rather manipulation and a method of influencing users and convincing them of something.

Access to unbiased information

If you want to get unbiased news, but you are worried about your security, use a VPN. A virtual private network will help you avoid tracking and leaking your personal data. With a VPN, people who are residing in temporarily occupied territories can access news websites, YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms where they can get information.

A VPN should be turned on all the time. And a VPN application you are going to install should not be developed in Russia or China.

You can install alternative messenger applications such as WhatsApp, Signal, or Threema (a paid messenger). These applications provide end-to-end encryption for all messages by default. This way of data transmission ensures that only communicating users can access messages.

Important notice! If your family members are residing in temporarily occupied territories, please share this information with them. Share these tips and recommendations with people who need to protect their personal data. Stay in the Ukrainian information space and don’t lose hope.

Author: Sofia Troschuk

Article published in Ukrainian by 24TV.UA


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