Telegram app moves to cloak identities of HK protesters

Some friends checking the Telegram message boards to see where other protesters are. Hong Kong protesters use encrypted apps to mobilise swiftly through multiple group chats.
Some friends checking the Telegram message boards to see where other protesters are. Hong Kong protesters use encrypted apps to mobilise swiftly through multiple group chats.PHOTO: NICOLE TUNG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON • Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging app, will allow users to cloak their telephone numbers to safeguard Hong Kong protesters against monitoring by the Chinese authorities, according to a person with direct knowledge of the effort.

The update to Telegram, planned for release over the next few days, will allow protesters to block the Chinese authorities from discovering their identities in the app's large group chats.

Thousands of Hong Kong protesters take their cues from more than 100 groups on Telegram. Protesters use encrypted apps like Telegram to mobilise swiftly through multiple group chats, with less risk of police infiltration, Reuters found in a report.

The groups are used to post everything from news on upcoming protests to tips on dousing tear gas canisters fired by the police as well as revealing the identities of suspected undercover police and the access codes to buildings where protesters can hide.

Protesters have grown concerned that the Chinese authorities could use the movement's reliance on Telegram to monitor and arrest organisers. Telegram chat groups used to organise public protests are often accessible to anyone and participants use pseudonyms.

But a feature in Telegram's design may have allowed the Chinese authorities to learn the real identities of users, according to a group of Hong Kong engineers who posted their finding on an online forum last month.

Telegram allows users to search for other users by uploading phone numbers. This function allows a new user to quickly learn whether those in his phone's contact book are already using the app, the group said.

Protesters believe Chinese security officials have exploited the function by uploading large quantities of phone numbers.

The app automatically matches phone numbers with the user names in the group. The Chinese authorities then only need to request the true identities of the owners of the phone numbers from the local telecom service.

Telegram has detected evidence that the Chinese authorities may have uploaded numbers to identify protesters, said a person with direct knowledge of the situation. But it is unclear whether the Chinese authorities have successfully used this tactic to locate protesters.

Hong Kong yesterday appeared to be the target of a large digital attack, with a popular online forum used by protesters saying its servers were hit.

Digital Attack Map, which provides information on daily cyber attacks around the world, showed the financial hub at the centre of distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks.

LIHKG, a forum used by demonstrators to organise mass rallies in Hong Kong, said its servers were hit maliciously by a large DDoS attack in a way that it had never seen before.

While some of LIHKG's services were interrupted, the forum was fully restored hours later.

This is the second large cyber attack to hit apps used this summer by demonstrators to organise protests.

In June, Telegram said it had been hit by a powerful attack coming out of China.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 01, 2019, with the headline 'Telegram app moves to cloak identities of HK protesters'. Print Edition | Subscribe