Is it impossible to hack Telegram Messenger?

"With Telegram, users are easy prey for the secret services"

t-online and contrasts reveal that there is a man behind thousands of channels and groups on Telegram. A data hunter who continuously saves information there explains why so much can be found out.

He calls himself "@ Datenliebe1" and contacted the editorial staff with a hint: He came across someone who is on Telegram in an unusually large number of groups. Telegram is the unregulated network where the corona protest is fermenting, organizing and dreaming of an upheaval.

A lot can be found out about this user. The user is called "Frank the Traveler" and he had already met the editors on the sidelines while researching. But the hint was the beginning of the research by t-online and the ARD political magazine "Kontraste" about the man who is networked with almost all groups on Telegram who write about resistance. The detailed research about "Frank the Traveler" can be found here.

@ Datenliebe1 also provided data from closed groups. To this day, the editorial staff does not know his identity. "Who I am doesn't matter. It is important that it stays that way. I want to publish data-driven analyzes on critical topics, and that makes me feel safer." He's also given advice to the British BBC. We spoke to him through the messenger Threema.

t-online: Once you've come across "Frank the Traveler", you'll find him very often on Telegram. But how did you find out about him?

Data love1: I was interested in the simple question: who is in most groups? To this end, I have collected public Telegram groups in a list over the years. In September 2020 I read out the active user profiles there and looked for identical profiles within the groups. Frank the traveler is in first place, he belonged to 73 groups in my dataset of 555 public groups.

What kind of groups are they?
Of course there are many more, I only have part of the groups he is in. I tried to get as great a variety as possible in my data. In short: everything that was publicly advertised on relevant websites, I recorded. Therefore I do not limit myself to conspiracy ideological groups only. Groups on Windows, Pokémon Go or crypto currencies, for example, are not critical. But the regional groups of the Identitarian Movement are also there. Since the resistance to the corona measures is largely organized on Telegram, these groups logically form a focus.

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If the data can be read out so easily, then it does not appear as if Telegram is a particularly secure or secret network ...

Absolutely correct. I was surprised that even the entire chat history of a public group of years can be downloaded without being a member. The end-to-end encryption, which makes it difficult to read along, is only activated in so-called "secret chats". This function is completely absent in groups. And the messenger offers extensive interfaces for processing data.

And what's next?

User profiles have a unique identification number. This is unique for each account and is identical in all groups in which this account is active. In this way, every message in the user profile can be tracked in appropriate groups. Since the users feel safe in the groups, they reveal all kinds of sensitive information. As long as Telegram reveals sensitive data this easily, it is easy prey for secret services, authorities or overzealous data analysts.

Conversely, users can also be found using a pseudonym.

It's easy when you get a cell phone number. If you add this to your contact book, there are tricks to get the user ID and find them in groups.

But there are also closed groups.

Closed groups differ only slightly from public groups. Its members can also save the entire process without anyone noticing.

Do you have any examples of this?

Chat logs were also leaked to me from the internal groups in which the admins of the DDAY 2.0 movement organized themselves.

We were allowed to evaluate them, thank you. Frank wrote a lot there too.

I am also connected to a person in the conspiracy-ideological youth group of the "lateral thinker" and corona denier Samuel Eckert and get the course from there ...

... which, from your point of view, shows how young people are indoctrinated and recruited. How do admins prepare for something like that?

If a leak is discovered, they try to find the leak and throw it out of the group. Or they rejuvenate the circle of the "knowing" to the core.

If admins do not delete content, criminal content such as calls for violence will also remain. Attila Hildmann posts swastikas. Why is that possible?

As a messenger, Telegram is not recorded by the NetzDG (abbreviation for Network Enforcement Act, editor's note) and can therefore not be forced to delete content. Although Telegram takes action against IS propaganda, incitement to violence and the spread of child pornography, most of the offensive content remains. Telegram also completely relies on users reporting posts and, for example, does not use any algorithms to automatically detect dangerous content.

Does Telegram have any strengths?

Quite apart from technical questions, the idea of ​​creating a free communication medium against state surveillance is basically a good one. The democracy movement in Hong Kong or the resistance against the dictatorial regime in Belarus would probably not have been possible without Telegram as a censorship-free medium.

Unfortunately, these tools are quickly misused by right-wing movements for anti-democratic purposes. Telegram could update its terms of use to explicitly ban anti-democratic content from the platform. But the founder Pavel Durov tolerates this under the guise of freedom of expression.