ISIS vs. the Surveillance State: Chat App Telegram Grapples with Censorship Post-Paris


The long-running debate over privacy vs. government surveillance – which is the high-tech iteration of the ancient struggle between liberty and security – gained new urgency after the Paris terror attack. Intelligence officials across the Western world are worried that terrorists have found new means of coordinating their efforts that cannot be monitored.

Many of them put a significant amount of blame on Edward Snowden and his exposure of NSA surveillance techniques–an accusation Snowden’s defenders vehemently deny, arguing that criminals were developing secure communications networks long before Snowden came along.

Whatever Snowden’s role might have been, the fundamental issue is whether citizens should be able to encrypt their communications in a manner that makes them absolutely immune to government surveillance. If the answer to that question is “yes,” then we must be prepared for criminals, including the most brutal terrorists, to take advantage of those networks. They would be foolish not to, given the advantages of secure, instantaneous worldwide communications. There are few assets more valuable to any form of warfare, especially the “asymmetrical” variety.

If the answer is “no,” we must not allow private communications to be completely immunized against government surveillance, we face a host of difficult follow-up questions about what sort of warrant should be required, and how the process will be supervised, and we must accept the high probability that such capabilities will eventually be abused, by both the U.S. and foreign governments. Such is the nature of all government power – it is always vulnerable to abuse. That is not a compelling argument for anarchy, in either real or cyber space.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported on the state of the battle over government encryption, noting that intelligence experts warned months ago that a major terrorist attack could dramatically shift the terms of that debate. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has already called for new legislation on data encryption, calling the current situation “unacceptable.”

That call was echoed by Manhattan D.A. Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who the Post describes as an outspoken critic of “how encrypted communications have stymied criminal investigations.” Vance wants Congress to “pass a law requiring the unencrypted content of any smartphone made or sold in the United States to be accessible to law enforcement officers with a search warrant.”

“Every tip will be investigated, every lead will be followed, but every time one of those trails leads to an encrypted cellphone, it may go cold,” Vance warned. He was particularly critical of Apple and Google, due to their promises of offering unbreakable encryption on their iOS and Droid smart phones–a promise Google largely backed away from, apparently more due to technical issues than security concerns.

“All law enforcement is asking for is the ability, with judicial authorization, to be able to intercept data and communications. Without that, I don’t see how we keep our communities safe,” said Boston-area police chief Terrence Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He went on to cite a specific case of a drug dealer who could not be prosecuted, because the police couldn’t retrieve evidence from his secure cell phone.

Phones are only part of the problem, and possibly an issue of more importance to criminal prosecutions than terrorism, since terrorists seem quite happy to use secure Internet communications platforms accessible from desktop computers as well as smart phones. One of the most explosively popular such applications–if you’ll pardon the pun–is Telegram, a new messaging application with an alarming number of ISIS channels. Telegram is basically a chat forum no one can eavesdrop on.

Telegram’s founders have been lauded by the most vigorous civil libertarians for their breezy refusal to compromise the integrity of their service to fight terrorism.

“If you look at ISIS, yes, there’s a war going on in the Middle East. Ultimately, ISIS will find a way to communicate with its cells, and if any means doesn’t feel secure to them, they’ll [find something else]. We shouldn’t feel guilty about it. We’re still doing the right thing, protecting our users’ privacy,” shrugged founder Pavel Durov in September, as quoted by the Washington Post on Thursday.

Durov, “the man known as the Russian Mark Zuckerberg” in the WaPo’s estimation, has openly mocked those who argue that his super-secure social media service is useful to terrorists. “I propose banning words. There’s evidence that they’re being used by terrorists to communicate,” he sneered in response to demands that he ban ISIS from Telegram. He even made comical allusions to the famous line in Casablanca where Claude Rains professed to be “shocked” that gambling was going on in Rick’s Cafe, suggesting that it was inevitable terrorists would use Telegram, and he was comfortable with that possibility.

The reason the Post is revisiting those quotes from Durov today is that he apparently changed his mind. “We were disturbed to learn that Telegram’s public channels were being used by ISIS to spread their propaganda,” said a statement posted on Telegram Wednesday. “As a result, this week alone we blocked 78 ISIS-related channels across 12 languages.”

Durov “learned” that fact months ago. It took an awful lot of dead bodies in Paris to “disturb” him. In fact, he brushed off criticisms of Telegram just a few days ago, after the attacks, so some sort of new information or pressure must have been brought to bear. Perhaps Telegram’s administrators found something in those ISIS channels that shook their faith in the principle of absolute privacy.

The Post goes through Durov’s colorful history of puckish digital anarchy at length, citing both indisputably courageous stances against authoritarianism in his native Russia and reckless anarchic stunts. He is “anti-regulation and pro-privacy” in a country where such a position can bring consequences that haunt the paranoid nightmares of America’s digital dissidents. And yet, he just tipped the scales from privacy to security, on a platform embraced as privacy Nirvana by both civil libertarians and jihadis.

“If criticizing the government is illegal in a country, Telegram won’t be a part of such politically motivated censorship,” Durov insisted in a follow-up post. “While we do block terrorist (e.g. ISIS-related) bots and channels, we will not block anybody who peacefully expresses alternative opinions.”

Why, that sounds positively… mainstream. Welcome to the very difficult struggle between liberty and security, Mr. Durov. It has been in progress for centuries, but it is still a very lively discussion. There is nothing like a sea of innocent blood to remind us that all of the simple answers are invalid.