Telegram has a big doxing problem

Telegram has a big doxing problem

Burmese influencer Han Nyein Oo rose to prominence in 2020, posting Myanmar celebrity memes and gossip on Facebook to an audience that grew to several hundred thousand in early 2021. Then, after taking the power by the country's military in February of that year, he shifted to the right, becoming a staunch supporter of the military junta that killed more than 1,500 people and arrested thousands more in bloody crackdowns.

Ben he was soon banned from Facebook for violating its terms of service, and moved to Telegram, the platform that is somewhere between an encrypted messaging app and a social network. There he posted messages of support for the army, bloody photos of killed civilians and pornographic deepfakes of some opposition women. Often these messages were reposted on other channels run by a network of junta supporting influencers, reaching tens of thousands of users.

This year, Han Nyein Oo switched to direct threats. On the occasion of the anniversary of the coup, on February 1, the opponents of the junta planned a "silent strike", closing the businesses and staying at home to leave the abandoned streets. On his Telegram channel, Han Nyein Oo became furious, asking his followers to send him photos of shops and businesses they were planning to close. Users responded to the call and the influencer started posting pictures and addresses of these people to his 100,000 followers. When dozens of venues were raided by police, Han Nyein Oo - who did not respond to a request for comment from UK - claimed credit.

"It was the beginning of the doxing campaign" - says Burmese digital rights activist Wai Phyo Myint, referring to the practice of publishing personal information online -. Since then there has been an escalation. "Over the past eight months, Han Nyein Oo's Telegram channels and those of other pro-junta figures, including self-styled journalist Thazin Oo and influencers Kyaw Swar and Sergeant Phoe Si, leaked online personal data of hundreds of people accused of siding with the resistance movement, from high-profile celebrities to small business owners and students. Dozens of people were arrested or killed during the vigilante violence.

Han Nyein Oo's channel was shut down in March after being reported for violating Telegram's rules on spreading pornography. Within days, however, the influencer opened another, which now numbers more than 70,000. followers.

If doxing becomes epidemic

The problem of doxing on Telegram goes far beyond Myanmar. UK spoke with activists and experts from the Middle East, the South East asian and Eastern Europe, according to which the platform ignored their warnings about a politically motivated doxing epidemic, allowing the proliferation of dangerous content that led to intimidation, violence and death (the platform is at the center of a ' investigation also in Germany, by local authorities, ed).

In a message on Telegram, company spokesman Remi Vaughn stated that "since its launch, Telegram has actively moderated harmful content on its platform, including the publication of private information. Our moderators proactively monitor the public sections of the app and accept user feedback to remove content that violates our terms. "

The public philosophy of Telegram, which today boasts more than 700 million active users worldwide predicts that private communications remain out of reach of governments This setting has made the app popular with people living under authoritarian regimes around the world (as well as conspiracy theorists and no-vax in democratic countries).

But the structure of the service, part encrypted messaging app, part social media platform, and its almost total lack of active moderation, made it "the perfect tool" for the type of campaigns doxing that are occurring in Myanmar, according to digital rights activist Victoire Rio.

This structure makes it easier to crowdsource attacks by publishing a target and encouraging their followers to find or share private information, which can then be disseminated to a wider audience. Misinformation or doxing content can seamlessly transition from anonymous single accounts to channels with thousands of users. Multiple sending of the same message is simple and channels can feed each other, creating a sort of algorithm-free virality that actively promotes malicious content.

From protests in Hong Kong to war in Ukraine

The first mass use of this tactic occurred during the huge democratic protests in Hong Kong in 2019, when pro-Chinese Telegram channels identified the protesters and shared their personal information to the authorities. Hundreds of protesters were sentenced to prison terms for their role in the demonstrations. But with the city divided between "yellow" (pro-protest) and "blue" (pro-police) lines, channels have also been created to infect police officers and their families. In November 2020, an employee of a telecommunications company was sentenced to two years in prison for leaking personal data of policemen and government employees on Telegram. Since then, app doxing appears to have spread to new countries.

In Iraq, militia groups and their supporters have learned to use Telegram to gain insight into opponents, such as leaders of civil society groups , which then broadcast on channels with tens of thousands of followers. Information rewards are sometimes offered, according to Hayder Hamzoz, founder of the Iraqi Network for Social Media, an organization that follows the use of social media in the country. These actions are often accompanied by direct or veiled threats. Recipients have faced harassment and violence, and some have been forced to flee their homes, Hamzoz says.

Hamzoz works with an assistance number to help targeted activists on social media. He said the use of Telegram for doxing started at the end of 2019. "Since then the dynamic has increased, I can say, more than 400 percent," he said. "There are too many examples". UK has looked at several posts, including those on channels with tens of thousands of followers, posting personal information, including phone numbers and work addresses. Hamzoz has been targeted on several occasions, with posts accusing him of being a US government spy. He claims to have shared these messages with Telegram.

In Eastern Europe, where Telegram is a popular platform, doxing campaigns have increased in size and frequency since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Ukrainians used Telegram to disclose private information of Russian soldiers, politicians and alleged collaborators and spies, according to open source intelligence experts studying the conflict and who have asked to remain anonymous. Russian channels, meanwhile, have used the practice against people fighting for Ukraine, often accusing them of being Nazis. Project Nemesis, a large Russian doxing organization, operates a very active Telegram channel that disseminates telephone numbers, addresses and other personal information about Ukrainian soldiers.

Activists from countries where doxing has spread accuse Telegram to turn a blind eye to the problem.

In Myanmar, UK viewed a document sent to Telegram by activists documenting several instances of private information being shared alongside threats of violence. These were posted on a channel associated with a group of violent vigilantes, where triumphal messages accompanied images of corpses branded with the group's logo. "What we have seen so far has been a null response," says Wai Phyo Myint.

Activists in the country have sent Telegram detailed information about the people behind the most dangerous channels, asking them to follow the example of Facebook collaborating with civil society to identify malicious actors, rather than focusing only on single malicious content.

A deliberate failure

In Iraq, Hamzoz said Telegram is not cooperating with civil society to limit the problem and which is far behind other platforms in efforts to address doxing and threats aimed at its users. His organization runs a helpline for activists in the country, which assists them when they are targeted online. When that happens on Instagram or Facebook, most of the time they manage to get the content removed fairly quickly.

Social media moderation experts dealing with Telegram doubt the company is willing or able to deal with it. systematically the problem of doxing. They point out how the company, which is believed to have only a few dozen employees worldwide, discloses very little of its corporate structure and only publicly names a handful of employees. However, its infrastructure has grown dramatically. Unlike other platforms, which employ internal and external moderators (and who still struggle to tackle the issues of disinformation and malicious content), Telegram has a philosophical, as well as practical, resistance to moderation. "It is not just a failure of the platform - explains Aliaksandr Herasimenka, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute -, it is a deliberate position".

This content was originally published on UK.

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