What is Telegram and How does it work?

Telegram has soared in popularity in the last 12 months, but what is it? How does it work? and what potential does it offer your OSINT investigation?

What is Telegram?

Telegram entered the instant messenger scene in August 2013 but it didn’t really start to gain traction until 2016 and by April 2020 it had 400 million monthly active users. In January 2021, Telegram gained 25 million new users in a 72-hour-period, following the release of a new privacy policy from WhatsApp. While Telegram still trails behind WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook Messenger, by its own user data it is more popular than Twitter and Snapchat, so if you’re not aware of it, you should be.

One of the key features of Telegram is its focus on privacy and the perception of anonymity. Telegram boasts end-to-end encryption, the ability to set unique usernames and hide your phone number from other users. Messages and accounts can also be set to self-destruct after a period of time and this makes it a popular application for the privacy-conscious and for criminal communications.

Aside from one-to-one conversations, there are groups and channels on Telegram which serve slightly different purposes. Groups are designed for conversation – they can have up to 200,000 members and can be public or private. Private groups are ‘invite only’ and are not identifiable through the search function. Channels on the other hand are designed for larger audiences and broadcasts; only the admin or channel owner can post on the channel but an unlimited number of people can join.

Criminal Activity on Telegram

As Facebook and other social media giants have clamped down on extreme and illegal activities on their platforms, people have sought out other avenues. During 2020, secure messaging platforms like Telegram and Signal, and micro blogging site Parler were the chosen destination of conspiracy theorists, Parler (which is similar to Twitter) was even removed from the Apple app store following the Washington DC Capitol riot in January 2021. Alongside conspiracy and hate-groups, Telegram is one of several homes for criminal enterprises.

Searches on the platform highlight numerous channels and groups selling everything from handguns and stolen credit cards to street drugs and fake Covid-19 vaccination cards. Monitoring these groups can provide interesting data regarding criminal trends and the ways that these groups are seeking to protect themselves – through the use of CashApp and Bitcoin for payments for instance – although tracking the owners themselves can prove difficult, but not impossible, due to the use of aliases and hidden phone numbers.

Telegram for OSINT

For OSINT purposes, the platform may not be helpful in ascertaining insight regarding specific targets – as messages and group memberships are hidden unless you know what groups the subject is in already – but can be useful in building a picture of the networks and markets active in specific areas. Firstly, group admins often post alternative contact information which can be used to locate them on other platforms with less restrictive privacy settings. The members of these groups also tend to take less precautions than the operators, making it possible to track down those who are involved in criminal purchasing on other social media platforms and ascertain their identity and location.

Telegram is on track to continue growing throughout 2021 and plans to target 1 billion users by 2022. Unless the platform decides to change its terms of service and clamp down on the illicit trades happening in groups and channels, the market is only going to continue to grow. So, this platform is definitely one to watch if you’re looking to profile a network of individuals.

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