Encrypted Messaging App Telegram Claims Iran Wanted to Spy on Users

Iran has a history of blocking messaging apps and social media.

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Oct 21 2015, 4:10pm

Image: Flegere/Shutterstock

As encrypted messaging services continue to gain popularity, authoritarian regimes continue to crack down on them. The latest example is mobile app Telegram, which the company claims was temporarily blocked in Iran on Tuesday. According to the app's creators, the block came after they refused a request to spy on their users for the Iranian government.

Telegram launched in 2013, and provides end-to-end encrypted text conversations across mobile and desktop. According to Global Voices, the app has been downloaded over 12 million times in Iran's version of the Google Play Store.

On Monday, the verified Telegram Twitter account tweeted that, "Service is fine, but Iranian network providers are limiting traffic since Wednesday." On Tuesday, Pavel Durov, CEO of Telegram, wrote that the service was "completely blocked" in the country for two hours, and had been partially blocked during the week prior.

Durov claimed on Twitter that the block was a result of government pressure, writing that the "Iranian ministry of ICT demanded that Telegram provided them with spying and censorship tools. We ignored the demand, they blocked us." He added that "Iranian officials want to use Telegram to spy on their citizens."

The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is the body of the Iranian government that overlooks communications, such as the postal service, phones and other technologies.

It is not clear what spying or censorship tools Durov might have been referring to, and Motherboard was unable to independently confirm interruptions to service in Iran. Neither Telegram nor the Ministry of ICT responded to requests for comment.

Telegram has been criticised in the past for agreeing to some restrictions pushed by the Iranian government. Earlier this year, Telegram cut off access for users in Iran to a feature of the app that was being used to share porn and satirical commentary of the government, according to a Global Voices report. The quality of Telegram's encryption has also been questioned.

"It is incumbent on service providers such as Telegram to resist demands for our data"

This wouldn't be the first time encrypted messaging apps have received the attention of the Iranian authorities.

"Authoritarian states across the world are demanding access to personal communications with catastrophic effects on people's privacy and the ability of activists, journalists and others to exercise their human rights," Edin Omanovic, a research officer at Privacy International told Motherboard in an email. "It is incumbent on service providers such as Telegram to resist demands for our data, and when they do they must be commended."

"We saw the same situation with Viber and other messenger apps in the past," Nariman Gharib, an internet freedom researcher, added in an email. The country has also regularly blocked access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, despite internal calls for such censorship to be lifted.

But Gharib notes that if the Iranian government targets one app, citizens will likely just switch to another.

"The government should understand that they should finish this cat and mouse game. It's not going anywhere. They are just wasting their money," Gharib said.