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Anonymity on Telegram makes it a ‘safe haven’ for illegal activities, says Kerala Police: Report

Credit: Soumyarendra Barik

The Kerala police told the Kerala High Court that it is nearly impossible for it to trace users on messaging service Telegram because of the “anonymity” and “security” the app provides, the Times of India reported. The police argued that Telegram made it difficult for it to gather users’ account details as users can use the service by using just a user ID, while hiding their mobile number, unlike WhatsApp, the report said.

As the phone number is hidden, law enforcement agencies cannot collect account details from service providers either. The app has become a “safe haven” to carry out “illegal activities,” due to the anonymity it provides, the police reportedly argued. Telegram should be made to abide by regional laws to operate in India, and a system should be created so that the platform can respond to queries on criminal matters, it further said.

Kerala Police’s filed its arguments in an affidavit in response to a petition by Athena Solomon, that seeks to block user access to Telegram and to delete all pornography channels, groups and bots on the platform, the report said. Kerala Police Cyberdome and the state’s DGP are among the respondents in the case, along with the Union of India, government of Kerala, Department of Telecommunications, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the official in-charge.

Anonymity is a big concern for the police: Users on the app can conceal their identities from admins of groups and send texts, videos or other files “anonymously,” the police said in its affidavit; and the fact that Telegram’s servers are hosted outside of India and the platform’s owners have not provided any support to law enforcement agencies in Kerala, also add to the police’s problems. It doesn’t provide any help to law enforcement agencies like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger do, the police said, and demanded that Telegram put up servers in India, the report said.

Police further argued that the platform, “which provides end-to-end encryption,” is used to propagate illegal content such as child pornography, carry out financial fraud, sell credit/debit card details and also for movie piracy, according to The Indian Express. However, readers should note that Telegram, unlike WhatsApp or Signal, doesn’t provide end-to-end encryption by default.

The petition that called for banning Telegram: Solomon, a student at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) Bengaluru, in a petition filed on October 1, had called for a ban on Telegram claiming that it is widely used for transmission of sexually explicit and vulgar content of women and children. It also claimed that the app is used by paedophile groups to circumvent the ban on child porn in India. It further said:

  • It doesn’t have an office, or even a nodal officer, in India.
  • Law enforcement agencies cannot make any sense of the Telegram data they receive from ISPs because they don’t have the encryption keys to Telegram.
  • The use of bots ensures that the identity of the user is not revealed, so it gets difficult to trace who is promoting child pornography and terrorism.

Telegram’s troubles in India: 

  • Telegram refused to hand over chat details of the ISIS module Ansar-ul-Khilafah Kerala despite several queries from the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
  • Several Indian ISPs sporadically blocked access to Telegram’s web version — not the app — over the past year:

  • In December 2018, in response to a customer complaint, JioCare tweeted, “The website [Telegram Web] has been indefinitely blocked as per the instructions received from the government.”
  • In February 2019, the Internet Freedom Foundation reported that Reliance Jio was blocking the messaging service’s web domain.
  • In April 2019, we reported that Jio and Hathaway (in which Reliance owns a majority share through subsidiaries) had blocked Telegram Web in several states. The website, when accessed on a Jio or Hathaway network, read, “Your requested URL has been blocked as per the directions received from Department of Telecommunications, Government of India.”

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