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The Telegram app has a global doxing issue

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The messaging and social media app Telegram was designed to give its users a level of security above regular texting. It's globally accessible, offers end-to-end encryption for chats and video calls, and it now claims over 700 million users. But an article in Wired says that the app has now become a breeding ground for major doxxing attacks all around the world. Peter Guest wrote that story and joins us now to explain. Welcome.

PETER GUEST: Hi there.

CHANG: Hi. OK. So can we just first define doxxing? Like, how would you put it?

GUEST: So doxxing is just the practice of sharing someone's private information on the internet - so their home address, their workplace, their phone number, some identifying information - usually as a way to intimidate them.

CHANG: And can you explain why this works so well on Telegram specifically?

GUEST: So Telegram, as you said at the top of the show, is something between a messaging app and a social media platform. It means that you can move quite seamlessly from sending and receiving anonymous private messages to then broadcasting them via channels. So anyone can set up a channel, and those can have tens, hundreds of thousands of followers. So what you can do on Telegram - if I run a big channel, I can use my followers to crowdsource information about somebody that I want to expose. They can send me information anonymously. I can collect that information, cross-reference it, then broadcast it right back into the same channel to hundreds of thousands of users.

CHANG: And you mention a lot of different specific examples of these doxxing attacks taking place all around the world in your story. Can you tell us about one example in particular?

GUEST: So the example that really drew me in to the story was Myanmar, where there was a military coup d'etat in February 2021. And since then, the military junta that runs that country has pursued its perceived enemies, and that's included using informants online to identify and expose people. That's been going on for a while, but it really escalated this year. So there was a silent strike. Effectively, businesses and individuals said, we'll stay home. We'll shut. We'll leave the streets deserted. And in advance of that, several military-supporting Telegram channels started asking their followers to identify businesses and individuals who said they were going to join the strike. So these got posted in these channels, addresses and names. And within hours, in some cases, the premises were raided by police. People were arrested. They ended up in jail.

CHANG: Wow. Well, I'm curious. What's been Telegram's response to your reporting so far?

GUEST: So Telegram is a fairly secretive company and hasn't historically engaged in any kind of deep way with journalists or civil society.

CHANG: They're based in Dubai, correct?

GUEST: So their structure is part of the reason why they are so complicated to cover and regulate. So as far as we know, they were founded in Russia. The software was developed in Germany. The headquarters are in Dubai. But the legal registration is in the British Virgin Islands.

CHANG: Wow. You know, I'm wondering about the original purpose of Telegram. I can imagine that one of its initial appeals was that it had this ability to protect messages from the eyes of the government. But now it's, in some cases, as you point out, being used as an instrument of the government to intimidate individuals.

GUEST: So I think Telegram has become an incredibly consequential platform in authoritarian countries. It has been used by people in those states to avoid censorship and to organize protest movements. You know, it's infuriated the censors in Russia for years. And that's a great thing. But I guess that's perhaps why there's a little bit of a sense of betrayal here that it's become an enormously dangerous place and a venue for these abuses. And certainly from the side of activists, they feel like Telegram is not supporting them. It's not listening to them, and it's not doing anything to make these spaces safer for them.

CHANG: Right. That was Peter Guest with his reporting that was recently published for Wired. Thank you very much for joining us today.

GUEST: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.