Kerala's missing Muslim youth used Telegram app's secret chat; why it’s a blind spot for cops

All their communication from the app is now inaccessible - to the authorities, to their families, or to anyone else
Kerala's missing Muslim youth used Telegram app's secret chat; why it’s a blind spot for cops
Kerala's missing Muslim youth used Telegram app's secret chat; why it’s a blind spot for cops
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Even as the authorities try to understand what lead almost 21 Kerala Muslims out of the state, their jobs have just gotten tougher. According to some of the families of the people who went missing from Kasaragod district, the youngsters who went in search of a 'true Sharia country' were using the Telegram app to communicate. 

The app has an option of 'secret chat', which a few of them were using. The feature allows messages to self-destruct after being read.

Most of the families including that of 23-year-old Hafeesudheen had received messages that they were in a Sharia country. "The message came and it disappeared after a while," his father Hakeem told TNM.

Not just Hafeesuddhin, others like Dr Ijaz, Shihaz, Rashid were also using the same service to send secret messages to their families.

"They made the families in Kerala download the app and they sent a few messages on that," said Mujeeb, Dr Ijaz's relative.

Hafeesudheen, Ijaz and around 19 others, including three children, left their homes in Kasaragod and Palakkad citing various reasons. While some of them told their families they were going to Sri Lanka, others had said they were off to Lakshwadeep.

More than a month after their disappearance, their families started getting messages, which had lead the families and police to believe that all of them have gone together to the same destination.

The Kerala police and central authorities are investigating if they had links to any Jihadi outfits including Islamic State.

How Telegram’s ‘secret chat’ functions

This is how the Telegram website explains their 'secret chat' option -

"All messages in secret chats use end-to-end encryption. This means only you and the recipient can read those messages — nobody else can decipher them, including us here at Telegram. 

Messages cannot be forwarded from secret chats. And when you delete messages on your side of the conversation, the app on the other side of the secret chat will be ordered to delete them as well.

You can order your messages, photos, videos and files to self-destruct in a set amount of time after they have been read or opened by the recipient. The message will then disappear from both your and your friend's devices."

Further, these chats are also not stored on Telegram's cloud database. You can only access these chats from the device of origin. 

This essentially means that all communication from the missing people in Kerala who used the secret chat feature is inaccessible - to the authorities, to their families and anyone else.   

The argument against end-to-end encryption

End-to-end encryption is a result of the post-Edward Snowden era which revealed governments' tendency to spy and snoop on private communication. 

And while the idea behind it may be to ensure privacy and protection of intellectual property, lawmakers argue that it enables what the FBI calls "going dark" - implying the increasing hurdles that authorities face in accessing communication data even when they may be authorised to.

The usage of end-to-end encryption by extremist organisations hinders surveillance by security personnel. These groups use this knowledge to their advantage and carry out most of their operational conversations on platforms which provide encryption.

How radical groups can use end-to-end encryption to their advantage 

This is not the first time that end-to-end encryption has hindered lawmakers and security.

In 2015, Telegram ran into controversy due to reports of Islamic State using the public broadcast feature of the app to openly broadcast their propaganda. Ultimately, Telegram had to block 78 such channels. And while arguments were raised about their end-to-end encryption feature then too,this is what Pavel Durov one of the developers of the app, had to say -

More recently, since WhatsApp also introduced end-to-end encryption in April, terrorist groups like Islamic State have been increasingly using the it, along with Telegram, to communicate. About a week ago, a rather disturbing report revealed that these apps were being used by the IS to sell women and underage girls to further sex trade.  

Terrorist organisations are increasingly using the digital medium, like social media, to radicalize youth. And when they identify potential recruits, they shift to this encrypted form of communication, which is private and removes the burden of accountability. 

In fact, there has been evidence to suggest that that IS operatives make specific requests for new recruits to carry with them a gadget (like a phone or tablet) which can support these apps and this mode of communication. This article for instance, shows how terrorists used WhatsApp and Telegram extensively to carry out the recent spate of terror attacks.   

Meanwhile app companies defend encryption, maintaining that while they are willing to cooperate with law enforcement, a blanket lift would mean exposing users' private information to hackers and cyber criminals too.

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