Iran: Privacy and censorship fears around Telegram messaging app

Iran: Privacy and censorship fears around Telegram messaging app - Digital

Samira Mohmmadi, 31, an architect, checks Facebook on her smart phone as she hangs out with friends (unseen) from a high terrace overlooking the capital.

There are emerging concerns about privacy and government interference with Iran’s most used messaging app, Telegram. Lack of transparency and contradictory statements from Telegram and the Iranian authorities, have raised questions about the level of security of communications made via the app, fostering fears of interception and censorship for journalists, human rights defenders, and citizens alike. 

“It is vital to the secure communications of millions of Iranians that Telegram becomes transparent and accountable regarding the status and content of the negotiations with Iranian authorities: the company must clarify whether security and privacy have been compromised,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director at ARTICLE 19.

“Secure communication allows individuals to express themselves without fear of reprisal, and are especially important in countries such as Iran, where freedom of expression is heavily censored. It enables individuals to disclose and discuss concerns on a variety of issues that they might otherwise avoid.”

In recent months, there has been a huge migration of users from WhatsApp to Telegram, on the basis of security and privacy, making Telegralm now the most-used messaging service in Iran. It is also widely used by the Iranian diaspora, to communicate with families, friends, and colleagues inside the country. Many Iranian public figures, artists, journalists and analysts, have opened their own public Telegram channels to disseminate messages and articles. The bulk the app’s use appears to consist of citizens using its group messaging facility to share jokes, videos, and pictures with friends and family members.

Telegram brands itself around security of data and user privacy, but these claims have recently been called into question by contradictory public statements from Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov.

Telegram’s service has been repeatedly interrupted in recent months, disturbances in service usually being attributed to updates or technical problems. One incident on 20 October, however, elicited a different response from Durov. Initial statements were made on Twitter, stating that Telegram is refusing to cooperate with Iranian officials to censor or spy on Iranian users:

His subsequent statement on 4 November, however, stated that contact received at that time was, in fact, not from Iranian officials, actually being ‘fake and not authorised.’ He also stated that the only issue in discussion with Iranian officials was that of pornographic channels on Telegram.

In this second statement, Durov refers to the deletion of pornogaphic and obscene channels, but since deletion of pornographic channels is already part of Telegram’s international policy, a question arises as to the specific content of these negotiations, and whether definitions of ‘pornographic channels’ are under specific consideration.

In the Iranian context, there is some risk that definitions of ‘pornographic’ could be extended, potentially resulting in the denial of the right of Telegram’s users in Iran to access to information on homosexuality, or sexual and reproductive health. The content and outcome of such negotiations, and any resulting censorship which is being justified on the grounds of ‘obscenity’ also requires clarification.

Durov’s second statement was posted only on his Telegram channel, which has substantially fewer followers, meaning that many will have missed the correction. He later tweeted a link to his Telegram statement, but which required the app to be installed, on the device being used, in order to be opened.

The lack of transparency in statements by both Durov and Iranian officials precludes reliable conclusion about the status of this software: from the company’s relationship with Iranian officials, to the existence of censorship and filtering, and, crucially, the security of Iranian users.This is particularly important since Telegramcommunications are not all end-to-end encrypted.

Until such issues are publicly and clearly addressed, Iranian users will be cautious about continued use of the app, no longer sure that their communications are private and secure. In the past week, many Iranian activists outside the country have switched to using Signal messenger.

Telegram must clarify the nature of its negotiations with Iranian officials, including the nature of any data, technology, and censorship being requested, as well as the date on which discussions began, and which elements of the Iranian regime have been involved.