What is Telegram? The app ISIS is using to communicate

After last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, many people took to Facebook and Twitter to vent their anger, frustration and sympathy at the tragic events. However, another social app was equally busy during and after the attacks, but with congratulations and encouragement over the atrocities in the French capital.

That app was Telegram, and it’s now becoming clear that the encrypted app – originally created as a reaction to run-ins with Russian intelligence – has become an integral part of how ISIS members communicate, operate and even recruit.

Telegram has responded quickly, closing down 78 of the service’s channels across 12 languages this week – as well as giving users more ways to flag and report inappropriate content. While that may seem like good news, the amount of channels split over several languages is a chilling reminder of just how large the ISIS network appears to be.

So what is Telegram?

Created two years ago by the same people behind Russia’s Facebook rival VK, Telegram was created after several run-ins with Russian intelligence services. The service was originally created by Pavel and Nicolai Durov, and intended as a safe place to quickly send files and messages without interception from government intelligence services.

Interestingly, the brothers also cite Edward Snowden as one of their main inspirations to create the service. While many users have switched over for political reasons, many privacy-minded Whatsapp users switched to Telegram after Whatsapp was bought by Facebook.what_is_telegram_2

Since 2013, use of the service has dramatically increased. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov stated that service already had over 62 million users – with around two billion emails sent per day. With around 220,000 users joining every day – especially in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East – that number will be even greater now.

Why Telegram?

It seems that many of the features designed to make the app safe for those in oppressive regimes have also made it ideal for ISIS supporters. Alongside features such as self-erasing messages and heavy encryption, Telegram’s website also explains the channel features – one of the main ways ISIS is using the app.what_is_telegram_1

Introduced in September, Telegram describes its channels as “a new tool for broadcasting your messages to large audiences”.

Shutting down

Telegram has removed several public ISIS channels, but it has done so with a number of caveats. In a statement released after the purge, Telegram stated “while we do block terrorist (ISIS-related) bots and channels, we will not block anybody who peacefully expresses alternative opinions”.

“For example, if criticising the government is illegal in a country, Telegram won’t be part of such politically motivated censorship. This goes against our founders’ principles,” the company added.

What’s next for Telegram?

While Telegram has moved to shut down ISIS’ public channels, it now finds itself in a tricky situation. In the face of more terror attacks and an increasingly worried public, does it break its privacy and encryption rules – and the very ideals on which it was founded?

The answer, for now, is a firm no. “Since channels represent a completely different means of communication, they require a completely different approach,” Pavel Durov told TechCrunch. “As for private chats, they remain sacred to us. There will be no shift in attitude there.”

A changing battleground

The interest in Telegram highlights the changing landscape on which terrorism is being fought. As technology becomes an increasingly important part of our everyday lives, it’s also becoming the next battleground in the war on terror.

Activists such as the hacking group Anonymous have already waged war on ISIS via the web, while governments are putting more and more pressure on tech companies to put “back doors” in their technology.

Read next: Snoopers’ Charter latest: ISPs condemn draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

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