What You Need to Know About the Telegram Messenger

Telegram Messenger: Under the Hood

Telegram Messenger is an instant messaging app that uses phone numbers (or optionally usernames) to connect users. With Telegram, users can send messages, pictures, videos, audios and any other type of file. The instant messenger app category is a hotly contested field, and some of Telegram’s competitors include WhatsApp, Google’s Hangout, BBM, WeChat, Facebook’s Messenger and LINE (among many others).

Telegram Messenger launched in 2013, created and backed financially by Russian billionaire brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, the founders of Russian social networking site VKontakte who wanted to build a communications system that couldn’t be accessed by the Russian security agencies.

It is built on the open source MTProto protocol. Telegram boasts of being fast, reliable and available on (and accessible from) multiple devices at the same time. It also uses a distributed server architecture with multiple data centres spread out in different jurisdictions around the world.

Telegram has also promised to never sell ads, will not accept outside investment and cannot be sold. Since the protocol is open source, independent developers are allowed (and encouraged) to build third party clients on the platform.

Telegram is available for Android, iPhone, Windows Phone, Linux, Windows, OSX and via the web.

To begin using Telegram, you must register with a phone number. The phone number then becomes the your identity on Telegram. In addition, you can set a username through which other users can connect and chat without having access to the phone number tied to the username. Usernames are optional and can be deleted at anytime by simply saving an empty username.

Telegram contacts list.

In addition to text messages, users can send files of any type up to 1.5 GB. Telegram messages also indicate the status of messages sent. One check signifies the message has been delivered to Telegram cloud, and the recipient has been sent a notification, while two checks indicate the recipient has read the message.

Messages sent with Telegram are encrypted by default, between the user device and telegram servers, which guards against man-in-the-middle attacks. In addition, the messages and files are stored encrypted on Telegram servers, while the decryption keys are stored in Data Centres in other jurisdictions. This way, neither Telegram staff nor government agencies with subpoenas can get to user data.

For the truly paranoid, Telegram has Secret Chats which are conversations between users that make use of end-to-end encryption. That is the chat is visible only to the two parties involved in the discussion, and even Telegram servers cannot view the contents of the chat. When a secret chat is set up between two devices, Telegram helpfully generates a picture visualization of the encryption key for the chat, which both users can compare, and if the image matches, then the chat is secure.

Telegram Secret Chats feature.

For secret chats, a self destruct timer can also be set on messages. This has to be set before the message is sent. The timer begins when the recipient views the message, and when it runs out the message is deleted from both devices. Photos sent with a timer less than one minute can only be viewed while holding a finger on them, and helpfully Telegram notifies the sender if a screenshot is taken.

Users can create groups containing as many as 200 users and can send broadcast messages to as many as 100 contacts. The difference between groups and broadcasts is that in a broadcast message recipients don’t know about each other, while in a group all participants see all other participants.

Telegram Messenger is a major challenger for the instant messenger app crown. It has so much going for it, including message delivery speed, security and privacy focus, lack of ads, and all the bells and whistles expected (and more) from a modern messenger.

6 comments

  1. ‘For the truly paranoid, Telegram has Secret Chats’

    Does one has to be paranoid if he just wants to protect his private conversations from American spy systems?

  2. A sad side-effect of this level of protection is that it will make it more difficult to shut down people involved in truly evil activities like child pornography and human-trafficking. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have the right to this level of privacy, but it comes with a price…

    • It is a side-effect, but this argument is constantly used and it has been shown many times that all the surveillance is used for are NOT investigations they were claimed to be used for – like the ones you mentioned. Besides that, you could avoid human trafficking by not letting anyone cross the border. By allowing borders to be open, you have the sad side-effect that those things are possible. I’m just saying that of course there can be sad side-effects, but the loss of freedom is not just a side but a main effect. And at some point I think that things are going to happen (leaks, government abusing its knowledge/power) that will make people realise that freedom actually IS worth something.

      • And beyond that I’ll add that things of this nature are rooted in precedent. It’s very common for laws that curtail basic freedoms and privacy to originate in causes that most would consider to be sympathetic (i.e. preventing crime) and for the first people targeted by said laws to be criminals and others who are generally considered to be unsympathetic targets.

        Unfortunately, things of this nature rarely remain confined to their original mandate for long. It’s just the nature of the system. Intelligence agencies thrive off of information and the more information they can get and the less barriers they have to it, the more they like it. Unfortunately this need is directly at odds with certain basic concerns such as privacy and freedom of information (the two are very closely-related).

  3. Telegram is NOT secure if it wants my phone number for registration. This is just a trick, ridiculous joke. How can you speak about anonymity if it requires my phone number??? Farce. No, thank you, I have other means to be secure.

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