Telegram Security: Is This App Safe to Use?

One platform that has gained significant attention in the messaging space is Telegram. Lauded for its focus on privacy and security, Telegram has amassed a substantial user base. But is Telegram secure, and if so, how secure is it really? 

In this article, we delve into the depths of Telegram's security mechanisms, exploring its encryption protocols, privacy policies, and data handling practices. We'll also shed light on known security breaches and provide practical advice on minimizing the risks of using Telegram. 

What is Telegram?

Telegram is a cloud-based instant messaging app that has been making waves in the realm of digital communication. The service was launched in 2013 by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the founders of Russia's largest social network VK.

Today, Telegram boasts over 500 million active users worldwide, making it one of the most popular messaging apps. It offers many features, such as group chats, voice, and video calls, and the ability to send files of any type. 

But what truly sets Telegram apart is its emphasis on privacy and security. It provides users with a platform to communicate freely without fearing their conversations being intercepted or monitored.

How Telegram Works

At its core, Telegram is a messaging app that allows users to send text messages, voice messages, multimedia files, and even conduct voice and video calls. It operates on both mobile (Android and iOS) and desktop platforms. 

Since the service is cloud-based, Telegram synchronizes seamlessly across all devices. However, the most important part of how Telegram works requires a deeper look into its primary asset – encryption.

Understanding Telegram Encryption

Telegram uses encryption to secure messages, ensuring that only the intended recipient can read them. It offers two types of encryption: server-client encryption for all messages and end-to-end encryption for its ‘secret chats.'

Server-Client Encryption

Server-client encryption is used in all Telegram chats, groups, and channels. When a message is sent, it's encrypted on the sender's device and can't be read until it's decrypted on the recipient's device.

The decryption keys are stored on Telegram's servers. While this method provides a level of security, Telegram can technically access the content of these messages.

End-to-End Encryption

End-to-end encryption, on the other hand, is used in Telegram's ‘secret chats'. With this type of encryption, only the sender and recipient have the decryption keys. This means nobody else, even Telegram, can read the messages. 

Note that secret chats are device-specific and not backed up in Telegram's cloud, further enhancing their privacy.

Telegram Security Features

One unique Telegram security feature is it's Secret Chats.
One unique Telegram security feature is its Secret Chats.

Telegram offers several security features that it claims help make conversations safer. When used correctly, these features can significantly enhance your Telegram account's security and protect your data. 

While no system is entirely foolproof, Telegram's security features seem reasonably comprehensive. Let's take a closer look at some of the more notable features:

Secret Chats

As mentioned earlier, Telegram offers ‘secret chats' that use end-to-end encryption. These chats are not stored on Telegram's servers and can only be accessed on the devices where they were initiated. 

They also have a self-destruct feature, allowing users to set a timer for messages to be automatically deleted after they've been read.

Two-Step Verification

To enhance account security, Telegram provides a two-step verification feature. In addition to the standard SMS-based code, users can set up a password that will be required whenever they log in to their account on a new device.

Account Self-Destruct

Telegram has a unique feature where accounts can be set to ‘self-destruct' after a certain period of inactivity. This period can be set to 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, or 1 year. All data, including messages and media, will be deleted if the account is inactive for the set period.

Privacy Settings

Telegram allows users to customize their privacy settings extensively. Users can control who can see their profile photos, status, and last seen time. They can also decide who to call or add to groups and channels.

Known Telegram Security Breaches

Despite Telegram's robust security features, it has not been entirely immune to security breaches. Here are some notable incidents:

The Iranian Hackers Incident

In 2016, Iranian hackers reportedly compromised more than a dozen Telegram accounts and identified the phone numbers of 15 million Iranian users. The hackers exploited a weakness in the SMS-based account verification process to take control of these accounts. 

In response, Telegram recommended using two-step verification to protect against such attacks.

Distributed Denial of Service Attack

In 2019, during the height of the Hong Kong protests, Telegram experienced a massive DDoS attack, which disrupted its services for about an hour. The attack coincided with the protests in Hong Kong, where demonstrators used Telegram to coordinate their activities. 

Telegram's founder, Pavel Durov, later revealed that the IP addresses involved in the attack were mostly from China, suggesting a possible link between the attack and the protests.

Elasticsearch Database Exposure

In 2020, an Elasticsearch database containing 42 million records of Iranian Telegram users was found exposed online. The database included phone numbers and usernames, and it was unclear how long the data had been exposed. 

The data seemed to have originated from third-party forks of Telegram's app, highlighting the risks associated with using unofficial app versions.

SS7 Mobile Attack

Hackers with access to the Signaling System 7 (SS7), used for connecting mobile networks worldwide, were able to gain access to Telegram messenger and email data of high-profile individuals in the cryptocurrency business. 

The hackers were after two-factor authentication (2FA) login codes delivered over the short messaging system of the victim's mobile phone provider. This incident underscores the vulnerabilities associated with SMS-based 2FA.

Telegram Privacy Policy

Although many laud Telegram for its privacy and security, we feel that this isn't reflected in the privacy policy. A casual look at the policy brings many glaring notables that make it seem like “just another app.”

For those who want to use Telegram, we've summarized some of the notable points of interest here;

Data Collection and Use

Telegram collects basic account data, which includes your mobile number, profile name, profile picture, and about information. This data is used to create your Telegram account. Your screen name, profile pictures, and username are always public, but you don't have to use your real name as your screen name.

Message Storage

Telegram is a cloud service, meaning it stores messages, photos, videos, and documents from your chats on its servers. This allows you to access your data from any device at any time. While data is heavily encrypted, the encryption keys are also stored online -albeit in other data centers.

Data Sharing

Telegram does not share your data with third parties. However, if Telegram receives a court order confirming you're a terror suspect, it may disclose your IP address and phone number to the relevant authorities.

Data Retention

Telegram retains your data as long as your account is active. All your messages and contacts will be deleted if you delete your account. However, the data might remain on their servers due to regular backup procedures.

How Telegram Processes Personal Data

Telegram processes your data to deliver your cloud chat history, including messages, media, and files, to any device you choose. This eliminates the need for third-party backups or cloud storage.

To ensure the security of your account and to prevent violations of Telegram's Terms of Service, Telegram may collect metadata such as your IP address, devices, and Telegram apps you've used. This metadata, if collected, can be kept for 12 months maximum.

Telegram uses aggregated data about how you use the app to build valuable features. For example, it calculates a rating that shows which people you message frequently to suggest frequent contacts.

One big highlight is that, unlike other services, Telegram doesn't use your data for ad targeting or other commercial purposes. It only stores the information it needs to function as a secure and feature-rich cloud service.

Who Telegram Shares Your Data With

One of the key concerns for any user when using a digital platform is understanding who their data is shared with. Here's what you need to know about Telegram's data-sharing practices:

No Sharing with Third Parties for Commercial Purposes

Telegram stands out from many other digital platforms because it does not share your personal data with third parties for advertising or commercial purposes. This means your data won't be used to target you with ads, a common practice on many other platforms.

Sharing with Legal Authorities

Telegram may share your IP address and phone number with the relevant authorities if it receives a court order that confirms you're a terror suspect. This aligns with Telegram's commitment to prevent its platform from being used for illegal activities. 

However, it's important to note that this is a rare occurrence and is not part of Telegram's regular data-sharing practices.

No Sharing of Your Messages

Telegram does not share your messages with any third parties. All messages are stored encrypted on Telegram's servers and can only be accessed by the sender and recipient. In the case of ‘secret chats,' messages are not stored on Telegram's servers.

Sharing with Other Telegram Users

Certain information, such as your username, profile picture, and status, is visible to other Telegram users. However, you can control who can see your ‘last seen' status and who can call or add you to groups and channels.

How to Reduce The Risks of Using Telegram

While Telegram is lauded for its robust security features, it's essential to remember that digital security is a shared responsibility. Users must take proactive steps to protect their data and enhance their privacy. 

This is particularly important in an era where cyber threats are becoming increasingly sophisticated and common. You can employ several strategies to minimize the risks associated with using Telegram. 

  • Enable Two-Step Verification: Doing so adds an extra layer of security to your account. In addition to the SMS code, you must enter a password when logging in on a new device. 
  • Use Secret Chats: Consider using Telegram's ‘secret chats for sensitive conversations.' These chats use end-to-end encryption so only you and the recipient can read the messages.
  • Be Cautious with Bots: Only use bots from trusted sources, and be aware that bots can potentially see the messages you send them.
  • Regularly Update the App: Updates often include security patches for known vulnerabilities. Keeping your app up-to-date can protect you from these vulnerabilities.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Always be cautious of messages claiming to be from Telegram that ask for your personal information or login credentials. 
  • Use the Self-Destruct Feature for Inactive Accounts: If you're not using your Telegram account, consider setting it to ‘self-destruct' after a certain period of inactivity. 
  • Use a Virtual Private Network: VPNs encrypt all your internet traffic and route it through a server in a location of your choice. This can hide your IP address and make your online activities much harder to track. 

Verdict: Is Telegram Secure or Not?

While Telegram has robust security features and a solid commitment to privacy, it's not entirely foolproof. The security of your data on Telegram, as on any platform, also depends on your security measures.

However, it's worth noting that privacy on Telegram is an entirely different matter. For example, the inclination to share your data with legal authorities under certain circumstances. These indicators mean you should remain cautious and vigilant when sharing sensitive information.

Timothy Shim

Tim is a former tech journalist turned web technology junkie. He spends his time exploring the best in digital privacy and security tools. Meanwhile, experiments with SEO continue to increase his blood pressure. ( Contact Tim on Linkedin )

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