Don't Shoot the Messenger

Don't Shoot the Messenger

Markus Ra

Politicians often try to score points by blaming encrypted messaging apps for all the evils of modern society. Government officials call for backdoors in popular end-to-end encrypted apps to "stop terrorism", neglecting the fact that this can't and won't work. Worse than useless, undermining encryption can only expose hundreds of millions of lawful users to hackers and corrupt officials in less fortunate countries – as well as make unchecked mass surveillance possible again.

We often get questions from journalists and regular users about this or that statement by another power-hungry politician. This text presents our extended take on the tough questions of terrorist communications and propaganda in mass market messaging apps.

How is my Telegram data protected?

Telegram's Secret Chats use end-to-end encryption, which means that nobody, including Telegram, can decipher the data exchanged by the communicating parties.

To protect the data not covered by end-to-end encryption, Telegram uses a distributed infrastructure. Cloud Chat data is stored in multiple data centers around the globe that are controlled by different legal entities spread across different jurisdictions. The relevant decryption keys are split into parts and are never kept in the same place as the data they protect. As a result, several court orders from different jurisdictions are required to force Telegram to give up any data.

Thanks to this structure, no single government or block of like-minded countries can intrude on people's privacy and freedom of expression. Telegram can be forced to give up data only if an issue is grave and universal enough to pass the scrutiny of several different legal systems around the world.

And what about the terrorists?

Let's now take a look at how terrorist organizations may use messaging apps and, more importantly, what we can do to stop them.

Private messages

People mostly fear that terrorists would use encrypted apps to send secret messages to prepare and coordinate their attacks.

If you don't look too closely, it may indeed seem tempting to simply ban end-to-end encryption to stop terrorists from exchanging coded messages. The sad truth is that this will not work. Terrorists are prepared to face great discomfort to ensure that their communications are secure and their task is successful, including the ultimate discomfort of death. So if you ban or backdoor existing messaging apps, they will immediately switch to one of the following tactics:

  1. Make their own apps. The technology for creating encrypted messaging apps is public knowledge. Anyone can make an end-to-end encrypted messenger today. Those new apps likely wouldn't have too many shiny features, and you'd have to manually install them, bypassing the Apple or Google Store, but they would work. Rumor has it that ISIS members have had their own app since January, 2016.
  2. Use coded language. Steganography is a fancy word for hiding information in plain sight. You can use any public or monitored channel safely if only you and your intended recipient know what "Uncle David is going shopping tomorrow" means.
  3. Use other methods of communication. You, as an ordinary user, would not want to buy a new phone, make one call, write one text message, and then throw the device into a dumpster. But this is exactly how the Paris terrorists communicated to organize and carry out the deadliest ISIS attacks in Europe to date.

As you can see, in many cases terrorists won't even have to switch to anything. They have perfectly viable alternatives to the existing encrypted apps. You, on the other hand, do not.

Ordinary people are not prepared to face the discomfort of apps with poor usability, let alone to use "burner phones" or secret languages for privacy. As a result, the only thing government-mandated backdoors can achieve is make mass surveillance possible again and expose your private data to hackers or corrupt officials. [1]

Public messages

But this doesn't mean we can't throw a wrench in the terrorists' plans. Another key way in which terrorists use mass communication services is to spread their message and make as many people as possible aware of their acts.

It is for this reason that all kinds of terrorist organizations have lately taken to social media like Twitter, Facebook, and others to publicize their content and threats. Telegram is unique among encrypted messengers in that it has Channels – a tool for sending open public messages to unlimited audiences. Naturally, terrorists have tried to use this tool for ISIS-related broadcasts as well. But just like other networks, Telegram took steps to kick them off this public platform.

Terrorist public channels still pop up – just as they do on other networks – but they are reported almost immediately and are shut down within hours, well before they can get any traction. (Seen something? Report it now!)

And yet, no matter how hard Telegram and the others are trying, terrorists have a powerful ally that helps them spread their horrible message far and wide.

Paint it black

What makes terrorism possible is not the weapons terrorists use, and not the messages they exchange –  they have a rich history of improvisation in both these fields. But there exists one truly indispensable enabling element: the media. [2] And it's no wonder that terrorist organizations invest a lot into maximizing their press coverage.

This is because, when you look at the numbers, any other cause of death and destruction (save for maybe crushing vending machines and the like) dwarfs acts of terror, however cruel and unjust they may be.

So the main job of a terrorist is to convince you that their savage acts are more relevant to you than the roughly 150.000 deaths from other causes that occur every day. They need to distort the perception in order to make us feel threatened by them and not by the myriad of other dangers that we are actually exposed to.

Sadly, mass media willingly lend their magnifying glass to the terrorists. After all, unsettling news brings page-views and advertising dollars – especially when the news has to do with gripping pictures of victims. Thus, terror spreads on the wings of the click-hungry press, spurred on by those politicians who are looking for more power and less accountability.

Hit them in the fear

We should never forget that terrorist organizations are first and foremost after our fear. They will try as hard as they can to make us feel insecure in our own cities and in our own homes. But there are too many of us and too few of them for these attempts, however painful for those affected, to become more than a drop in the sea of mundane dangers that we have learned to live with and sail through.

We must not panic and fall prey to the many powers that would use our fear of terrorism to achieve their own selfish goals. Instead, we should give consolation and any support we can to the victims and their families – especially if we have a connection to them, however unlikely this may be.


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Notes

[1] It is not possible to build a backdoor that can be exclusively used by the "good guys". If a backdoor exists in a service, it is only a matter of time before hackers find an unofficial way of using it to get to your data. And if you live in South America, Russia, China, or many other regions, you may find that the official use of those same backdoors may differ wildly from what you can expect in societies with a stronger rule of law.

[2] Indeed, terrorism did not exist in its present form until the middle of the 19th century, by which time newspapers and telegraph networks truly united the world's information flows for the first time in history.