Telegram is one of the most popular messaging apps in the world, with over 800 million users. However, upon closer examination, there are some serious concerns with how it handles privacy and encryption.
Group Chats Privacy are NOT End-To-End Encrypted
One of Telegram's major selling points is its group chat functionality. The app proudly claims that by default, all groups and channels are private. However, this is misleading. When Telegram says private, they simply mean the groups aren't open for random users to join - they don't actually provide encryption for group chats.
Describing unencrypted groups as "private" is disingenuous, as that strongly implies a level of security that does not actually exist. Users reasonably expect the term "private" to mean their communications are securely protected from unauthorized access. A more transparent label like "closed" would be preferable to avoid misunderstanding.
This has serious privacy implications. Without encryption, Telegram and any hackers/governments who gain access can view all group chat messages, photos, files, etc. It's misleading for Telegram to call these private when they can access the content. They would be better served describing groups as "closed" instead of private to avoid confusion over the lack of encryption.
One-to-One Chats Also Lack Default Encryption
The privacy issues don't stop at group chats. By default, even one-to-one chats on Telegram are not end-to-end encrypted. All messages, media, and files exchanged between two users can be accessed by Telegram and any third parties.
Telegram does offer "Secret Chats" which do provide encryption. However, users must manually enable this feature, and many are unaware it's even needed to securely communicate on the platform. With encryption being opt-in rather than the default, many Telegram users likely believe their private conversations have stronger privacy protections than they actually do.
Misleading Answers about Encryption Standards
When directly questioned on making all conversations encrypted, Telegram's FAQ response evades direct mention of "Secret Chats" or the type of encryption they provide (end-to-end).
Instead, a blanket term "securely encrypted" is employed while distinguishing types in an intentionally vague manner that obscures the difference between end-to-end encryption and encrypted-in-transit - the latter still allowing Telegram retrospective access.
This purposefully obscures clarity for average users regarding variations in levels of privacy offered, and misleads by implying universal strong security properties that do not truly exist across all chat types.
Average users won't understand the distinction between end-to-end encryption and encryption-in-transit. This allowed services like Zoom to be sued for similarly muddying the waters around their actual privacy practices. By avoiding mentioning secret chats specifically, Telegram gives a misleading impression that all user data has strong protections, when that is clearly not the case.
Concerns over Telegram's Homebrew Encryption Protocol
Rather than relying on established open encryption standards, Telegram developed their own called MTProto. While vulnerabilities found over time have been patched, cryptography experts still have some reservations due to the initial protocol design and lack of transparency around its development process.
Homebrew solutions don't undergo the same rigorous public analysis that industry standards do. This introduces unnecessary risks, as cryptography is incredibly complex and subtle flaws are easy to miss without a high level of vetting.
Trusting Telegram's Word on Data Access
There are concerns about trusting Telegram's word that they don't grant access to governments. While the founder has resisted demands before, Telegram could easily be forced to comply via gag orders or secret data sharing agreements, as has happened many times with other companies.
A true privacy-focused platform like Signal deliberately makes user data inaccessible by design, so they have nothing to hand over even if subpoenaed. With Telegram, all data sits stored on their servers forever, with only their promise of non-disclosure protecting users. Promises alone do not provide robust security guarantees.
Comparing Approaches of Signal and Telegram
President of Signal Meredith Whittaker emphasizes how their nonprofit takes great care to not collect any identifiable user data whatsoever as the only way to truly keep privacy commitments. This is despite being a much more complex and expensive approach.
Every time Signal has been subpoenaed, they've had no user data or metadata to provide - a key difference from a for-profit service like Telegram storing everything centrally. Privacy must be prioritized over business concerns if strong protections are to be guaranteed.
True privacy requires a platform designed from the ground up with encryption as the default and avoidance of data collection. While Telegram may suffice for less sensitive uses, it does not meet the security needs of those seeking securely private communications. Signal provides a model for how messaging can prioritize user privacy above all else.