Telegram traces cyber attack to China during Hong Kong protests

Telegram announced late on Wednesday (June 12) that it was suffering a "powerful" Distributed Denial of Service attack.
Telegram announced late on Wednesday (June 12) that it was suffering a "powerful" Distributed Denial of Service attack.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Telegram founder Pavel Durov said that a massive cyber-attack on his messaging service originated in China, raising questions about whether Beijing tried to disrupt the protest involving hundreds of thousands that erupted on the streets of Hong Kong.

The encrypted messaging app said it experienced a powerful Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack after a massive number of “garbage requests” flooded its servers and disrupted legitimate communications. Most of those queries came from Chinese Internet protocol addresses, Mr Durov said in a subsequent Twitter post.

“This case was not an exception,” he tweeted without elaborating.

Telegram warned that users in many regions may face connection issues.

It later announced on Twitter that its service had stabilised. It also posted a series of tweets explaining the nature of the attack.

Hong Kong is in the throes of political unrest as the Beijing-backed government attempts to force through controversial legislation that would for the first time allow extraditions to China, which protesters fear could be used to squelch government opposition.

That proposal has ignited a widespread outcry, sending hundreds of thousands of protesters into the city’s streets and triggering violent clashes when demonstrators stormed the legislative chamber on Wednesday (June 12).

Hong Kong protesters have grown increasingly concerned about legal repercussions as Beijing tightens its influence over the former British colony and the local government prosecutes demonstrators.

They have relied on encrypted services to avoid detection. Telegram and Firechat – a peer-to-peer messaging service that works with or without Internet access – are among the top trending apps in Hong Kong’s Apple store.

Protesters in the city have used Telegram to evade electronic surveillance and coordinate their demonstrations. Many protesters masked their faces to avoid facial recognition and avoided using public transit cards that can be voluntarily linked to their identities.

An administrator of a large Telegram group in Hong Kong was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly conspiring to commit a public nuisance, in relation to mobilising youths for Tuesday's protest, the South China Morning Post reported.

Mr Ivan Ip, who is in his 20s, was said to have managed a conversation involving 30,000 members and allegedly plotted with others to stomp the Legislative Council (LegCo) complex as well as block neighbouring roads, according to the Post.

Messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp have come under the spotlight as key tools for people in the city to coordinate their protest.

The LegCo suspended a review of the Bill for a second day on Thursday amid the continued threat of protests. The city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, is seeking to pass the legislation by the end of the current legislative session in July.

Telegram was created by Mr Durov, a Russian entrepreneur known for his advocacy of Internet freedoms. In 2017, he said the service would be registered with Russia’s communications watchdog after it was threatened by a domestic ban.

Mr Durov did not immediately respond to a message posted on his private Telegram channel.

 

When asked about Mr Durov’s claim that the attack originated from China, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was not aware of the incident.

“What I can tell you here is that China has always opposed any form of cyberattacks. China is also a victim of cyberattacks,” Mr Geng said at a regular press briefing in Beijing.

China's cyberspace administration did not immediately respond to AFP's requests for comment.

Telegram allows users to exchange encrypted text messages, photos and videos, and also create "channels" for as many as 200,000 people.

It also supports encrypted voice calls. It announced last year that it had crossed 200 million monthly active users.

Governments in recent years have devoted significant resources to breaching the security features of these apps, according to tech firms and researchers.

Hong Kong is not behind China's Great Firewall, which heavily restricts Internet access in the mainland - where Telegram is blocked.

The city's special status under its handover agreement allows freedoms unseen in mainland China, but many fear they are under threat as Beijing exerts increasing influence on Hong Kong.