A privacy-touting messaging app is having to shut down multiple ISIL accounts

Piecing together clues.
Piecing together clues.
Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
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Telegram—a messaging app set up two years ago with two layers of encryption to protect its users’ communications from being read by outside parties—has around 62 million people using the app every month, sending 10 billion messages every day.

Including ISIL.

The Berlin-based startup—whose 30-year-old Russian CEO hails Edward Snowden as a hero—shut down 78 ISIL-related accounts after learning that the terrorist group was using many of its channels, using the app to claim responsibility for the Paris terror attacks as well as the bombings in Beirut.

For example, ISIL’s flagship channel, Nasher, broadcast in a number of languages and had amassed more than 10,000 Arabic followers, 998 in English, and 348 in French.

In a statement released on its news channel on Wednesday (Nov. 19), Telegram called on its users to “report objectionable public content” to help them shut down any more channels. This had led to a cat-and-mouse game, where the channels closed by Telegram are quickly replaced with new ones.

The app is now is at the heart of the debate on encryption, which is likely to become a major issue following the Paris attacks and in the run-up to the 2016 election. Tech companies are under significant pressure to allow government agencies to access their services and devices.

“If you create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way, to behead children, to strike innocents—whether it’s at a game in a stadium, in a small restaurant in Paris, take down an airline—that is a big problem,” Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC.

CIA director John Brennan said the attacks were a “wake-up call” on the debate around encryption. The New York police commissioner suggests encryption has helped ISIL go “dark” and hide from surveillance. In an opinion column in the New York Times, Manhattan’s district attorney and the City of London Police commissioner said “encryption blocks justice” and asked “whether this encryption is truly worth the cost.”

They problem, they say, with some communication apps is that they encrypt messages by default, so companies wouldn’t be able to hand over messages to law enforcement—even if they wanted to. Tech senior figures like Apple’s Tim Cook are refusing to back down.

While the debate on security and privacy is not new in politics, it worth noting that it’s unclear as to whether the Paris terrorists even used encryption to carry out the attacks. At the scene of one of the attacks, police officers reportedly found (link in French) a phone with an unencrypted message: “It begins.”