A few days ago, some of the organizers of the protests in Hong Kong accused Chinese authorities of exploiting a feature on the messaging platform Telegram to obtain their phone numbers and disrupt the organization of the protests. However, data protection experts say Telegram will intervene in the matter through a new update.
In its next update, the messaging platform will allow users to hide their phone numbers, giving Hong Kong protesters full protection against these monitoring activities. This update will be available in a couple of days, says a source close to the company.
According to various media outlets, Hong Kong protesters use a hundred public Telegram groups to distribute details about demonstrations quickly and without access from the authorities. These groups disseminate details such as the identities of potential undercover police, tips for avoiding tear gas bombs, and even access codes to some government facilities where Protestants can hide.
However, a group of data protection experts expressed concern to the company that the Chinese authorities might find a way to access the identity of movement leaders through these massive groups, which usually are public, although the participants have some anonymity features.
The concerns of the members of these chat groups are not unfounded, as Telegram, like other messaging services, depends on the use of the phone number as a user ID. Thanks to this, any user can search for people who are using the app by just uploading a phone number.
Data protection experts say China’s security agencies might be abusing this feature to find the identities of some movement leaders; as expected, the authorities have not commented on these concerns. Telegram automatically searches for matches between phone numbers and users in a chat group, so you only need to enter the phone numbers app in bulk to find a user. Although the authorities require the cooperation of telephony companies, this does not seem to be a difficult obstacle in China’s case.
The anonymous source states that Telegram has evidence to prove that the Chinese government has tried to exploit this feature of the app, although it is unclear whether some protesters have been arrested using this information. The company has also not made any official statements.
The informant also mentions that Telegram has prepared an update that will allow protesters to disable this automatic matching, protecting users from government search activities but allowing them to continue using Telegram’s public groups securely.
One factor that plays against civilians is time, in addition to the logistics for the more than 200 million Telegram users to adopt this update, because it is necessary for all users in these groups to implement this protection for their correct Operation.
According to data protection specialists from the International Cyber Security Institute (IICS), a couple of months ago Telegram suffered a cyberattack attempt allegedly perpetrated by government-sponsored hackers, allegedly Chinese, as the authoritarian governments are aware of the security features of the platform and its help in multiple social mobilizations.