A Glimpse into Telegram's Security

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Yesterday, Edward Snowden posted concerns about Telegram's default security on Twitter:

triggered by Thomas Ptacek's tweet, who said that Telegram stores messages on their servers in plaintext:

How Telegram's cloud security actually works

In Telegram there are two kinds of chats, the cloud chat ("default" chat or group chat) and the secret chat.
Messages of cloud chats are client-server encrypted with MTProto, an open source mobile protocol which Telegram developed on their own.

MTProto server-client encryption

This means that messages are being encrypted before sending them to Telegram's servers. Even if the message is being stored encrypted, the server has the capability of decrypting the message and read it as "plaintext", as Snowden states out:

This is necessary though to make messages accessible on devices across different platforms such as Telegram's mobile messenger or Telegram's Desktop app. Telegram is a cloud service which stores messages, photos and other files on their servers, so that users can access their data from any of their devices. Anytime.

While messages could theoretically decrypted by Telegram's server, Telegram ensures to store all data encrypted and store the encryption keys in several other data centers in different jurisdictions.

This way local engineers or physical intruders cannot get access to user data, as Pavel Durov, Founder of Telegram, also pointed out:

Secret chats ensure end-to-end encryption

For more paranoid users, Telegram offers their secret chat (also based on MTProto) which are end-to-end encrypted and the encryption keys are solely hold by the secret chat's participants.

Therefore, if you start a secret chat, it's only available on the device where you started the chat and it's not synced across your other connected devices. Furthermore it requires both users to be online at the same time.

MTProto client-client encryption

These messages don't leave a trace on Telegram's servers and if a message is being deleted, the app on the other side of the secret chat will be ordered to delete it as well. Alternatively, a self-destruct timer can be set for all messages, photos and other files.

Conclusion: Security comes at the price of convenience

I really like the possibility to choose on my own whether I want chats synced across devices or have them end-to-end encrypted on only one device.

In general I trust Telegram from a personal point of view, though some sources1 2 point out that Telegram's security leaves room for improvement.

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Sources

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David Pichsenmeister
David Pichsenmeister

Co-Founder of oratio, chatbot evangelist, known as @3x14159265 on the internet. Bringing messaging and eCommerce to the next level 🚀