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Secure messaging app Telegram is being used widely in Ukraine. How safe is it?


The app Telegram has proven critical to both sides of the war in Ukraine. It's become a place to bear witness to the conflict and connect refugees to services. But it has also set off a debate about just how secure the messaging service is. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn takes a closer look at how the war put Telegram in the spotlight.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Arquan Kushnikov (ph) and his family fled Ukraine just days before the Russian invasion. Now in France, he opens Telegram to learn about the devastation of his home country.

ARQUAN KUSHNIKOV: Bombing of the maternity ward in Mariupol. You have a lot of videos. Even before it hits the news, you already see the videos in the Telegram channels.

ALLYN: Telegram is a hugely popular messaging app in Russia and Ukraine. It lets people subscribe to channels. They can be set up by one person or a whole organization. Many journalists, aid workers and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself broadcast on Telegram channels. Kushnikov says they often counter Russian propaganda with...

KUSHNIKOV: Firsthand experiences, firsthand videos.

ALLYN: In Russia, Telegram has become one of the few places residents can access independent news about the war. I talked to Andry (ph), a Russian entrepreneur living in Brazil. He asked that we not use his last name, fearing retaliation.

ANDRY: There are several million Russians who can lift their head up from propaganda and try to look for other sources. And I would say that most of them look for it on Telegram.

ALLYN: He gets independent news on Telegram and keeps tabs on the Kremlin's official line. And it's where he started a Russian-language channel to help Ukrainian refugees find food, shelter and other essential services.

ANDRY: There is a lot of medicine, which is being delivered to Ukraine from outside by generous donations. We're trying to match logistics on this medicine.

ALLYN: Telegram was founded in 2013 by two Russian brothers. One of them is Pavel Durov, known as the Russian Mark Zuckerberg because, before Telegram, he founded one of the biggest social networks in Russia. But in 2018, Russia's intelligence agency tried to get Durov to turn over messages from pro-democracy activists. Nathalie Marechal of the Washington advocacy group Ranking Digital Rights says Durov refused.

NATHALIE MARECHAL: And that set off kind of a battle royale for control of the platform that Durov eventually lost. And so he and his brother and some other associates left Russia.

ALLYN: They started Telegram as a way to communicate outside the Kremlin's orbit. Now they run it from Dubai. Despite Telegram's origins, its approach to user privacy worries a lot of people. By default, messages are not fully encrypted, meaning the company could, in theory, access the content of messages or be forced to hand over data at the request of a government.

EVA GALPERIN: There is a significant risk of insider threat or hacking of Telegram systems that could expose all of these chats to the Russian government.

ALLYN: That's Eva Galperin. She's with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has called for Telegram to improve security. Recently, Durov, who is known for not giving interviews, wrote on his Telegram channel that users' right to privacy is, quote, "sacred, now more than ever." Individual messages can be fully encrypted, but you have to turn it on. It's not automatic, unlike other apps such as Signal and WhatsApp. Galperin says that's a big problem.

GALPERIN: There are a lot of things that Telegram could have been doing this whole time. And they know exactly what they are, and they've chosen not to do them. That's why I don't trust them.

ALLYN: Telegram says people want to keep their chat history when they get a new phone, and they like having a data backup. And that's why they let people choose whether they want their messages to be encrypted or not. But Ukrainian Kushnikov, for one, says questions around privacy on Telegram do not give him pause when it comes to sharing information about the war.

KUSHNIKOV: We, as Ukrainians, believe that the truth is on our side. When there is truth that you're proclaiming about the war and everything else, why would you want to hide it?

ALLYN: Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.