Telegram founder knew Isis was using the app to communicate before Paris attacks

Telegram founder Pavel Durov said: 'The right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism'

Doug Bolton
Friday 20 November 2015 13:49 GMT
Pavel Durov during an interview with Mike Butcher at TechCrunch Disrupt in September 2015
Pavel Durov during an interview with Mike Butcher at TechCrunch Disrupt in September 2015 (Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

It has emerged that the founder of secure messaging app Telegram was aware that Isis was using the service to communicate and spread propaganda, weeks before the attacks in Paris.

The words of Telegram founder Pavel Durov at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in September contradict the company's recent claim that they were "disturbed to learn" about Isis' use of the app.

The company made this claim in a statement, in which they also announced they were shutting down 78 Isis-related Telegram groups.

Telegram, which was launched in 2013, allows people to talk via highly encrypted messages that are only readable to the sender and the receiver.

It's become popular with many people for its powerful and speedy chat features, but it's also become a propaganda tool, used by Isis supporters who know they can use it to message others without being tracked by spying security agencies.

Increasingly, Isis supporters have been using Telegram 'channels' - publicly available feeds that can be seen by an unlimited number of people, while still offering the poster anonymity.

Despite long-held fears that Isis was using channels to communicate, organise and spread propaganda, the Washington Post recently spotted that Durov said he was aware of Isis activities on his service as far back as September.

When asked whether he "sleeps well at night knowing terrorists use [his] platform," Durov said: "That's a very good question but I think that privacy, ultimately, and the right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism."

"If you look at Isis - yes, there's a war going on in the Middle East. It's a series of tragic events. But ultimately, the Isis will always find a way to communicate within themselves."

"And if any means of communication turns out to be not secure for them, they'll just switch to another one. So I don't think we are actually taking part in these activities."

Durov added: "I don't think we should be guilty or feel guilty about it. I still think we're doing the right thing, protecting our users' privacy."

This week, in the wake of the Paris attack and increased scrutiny on possible Isis communication tools like Telegram, the company released a statement, saying: "We were disturbed to learn that Telegram's public channels were being used by ISIS to spread their propaganda" - expressing surprise, even though Durov had said Isis used the app almost two months before.

“As a result, this week alone we blocked 78 ISIS-related channels across 12 languages,” they added.

The privacy-versus-security debate has been going on ever since the secrets of intelligence agency surveillance were leaked.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Durov said he will stay committed to preserving users' privacy. He said that Isis channels were shut down because they are available to the public - because they're not private, they require a "completely different approach."

Regarding private chats, he said: "They were and remain sacred to us. There will be no shift in attitude there."

Telegram takes a defiantly strong stance in favour of freedom of speech and privacy, regardless of who its users are - but it's a position that might become more precarious in the face of post-Paris security legislation.

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