The Indonesian government is currently assessing the correct procedure to follow to revoke its partial blocking of encrypted messaging service Telegram after the Russian company’s chief executive, Pavel Durov, contacted Communications and Information Technology Minister Rudiantara.
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology announced on Friday (14/07) that it had blocked Telegram over terrorism-related content, which reportedly aided the planners of several terrorists attacks in the country, including the double suicide bomb attack in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta, in May.
National Police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian confirmed that the mobile phone application is used by terrorists to coordinate attacks. He said the perpetrators involved in the stabbing of two police officers at a mosque in Jakarta in June accessed terror-related materials on the app before the attack.
With Telegram’s blocking having affected millions of users in Indonesia, Durov quickly approached Rudiantara to offer his cooperation, a reliable source at the ministry said.
“Durov contacted Mr. Rudiantara recently and issued an apology as he realized that our request for them to review negative content [on the platform] was not heeded in a timeous fashion since 2016,” ministry spokesman Noor Iza told the Jakarta Globe on Sunday.
“Telegram also reported to us that it has deleted the content we requested and that it was willing to wait for the proper procedures for us to restore access in Indonesia,” Iza said.
However, the reactivation of Telegram in Indonesia is not yet a foregone conclusion.
“We’re waiting for Rudiantara’s decision on whether Telegram will have its access restored,” the spokesman said.
The ministry expressed its appreciation for Telegram’s fast response and for its apology.
Veryan Khan, director of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), a digital intelligence repository for political violence and terrorism, said use of the app by Indonesians has been a big concern, especially after the middle of January this year, when the Amaq News Agency, the semi-official news site of the Islamic State extremist group, established a Telegram channel in the country.
“But it’s really since the siege of Marawi City, now 55 days ago, that the amount of chatter among Indonesian-speaking IS supporters has been snowballing. It’s hard to guess how many Indonesians are involved, but the topics are becoming more serious by the day,” Khan told the Jakarta Globe.
What started as mere requests for on-the-ground information from inside Marawi City to be translated into Indonesian, has escalated to items such as long treatises, justifying targets, and images of people undergoing archery training that started to circulate, Khan added.
TRAC was one of the first institutions to identify a major shift in jihadis’ communication methods from Twitter to Telegram in September 2015. During that time, TRAC saw tens of thousands of users migrate to Telegram as their first choice for communication.
“Today, it is hard to say, given the vast number of groups that participate all day long in roughly 13 different languages, but a good guess would be 20,000 to 30,000 in total,” Khan said.
She added that the main ways to communicate on Telegram are channels, chat rooms, which can contain thousands of participants, and private conversations.
And as the world begins to confront terrorism, their basic need is to communicate to recruit more sympathizers online. Telegram’s strong privacy and security are the primary attractions for potential users and the key reason for its widespread adoption.
Many believe jihadists are recruiting and expanding their work space by using the app to disseminate information on their doctrines for achieving their goal to establish a global Islamic caliphate.
The application boasts end-to-end encryption and it contains freely available open-source code. Telegram is so confident of its encryption that it has offered a $300,000 reward to the first person to crack it.
The “self-destruct” option is particularly useful to those who move around a lot and forget passwords or have limited use of the internet for extended periods. There are also privacy settings for each individual account that can either set messages to self-destruct after a certain time, such as “secret chats,” or even accounts that self-destruct after a chosen period of inactivity.
In his latest statement, Dubrov said his company is no friend of terrorists and that it has joined the fight against terrorism by closing their channels and groups over the past few years.
Khan said many Telegram accounts are taken down every day, but the sheer number of channels available is hard to fathom for anyone who has never used the platform.
“From supporters creating their own channels and chatrooms, to official media channels run by IS, or AQ [Al Qaeda], or even the Taliban, there are literally thousands of channels, maybe even tens of thousands, at any given time, in multiple languages,” said Khan of TRAC.
“Over the past six months, the new trend is to self-shutter a channel and let all your followers know where you are moving before it closes. Some official IS channels like Khilafah News move voluntarily as often as three to four times a day. Their supporters simply move with them, like changing channels on your TV,” she said.
Blocking Telegram, is not going to be effective as IS constantly puts out manuals about cybersecurity for its supporters. The easiest way for a supporter to still use Telegram once it is banned is through a virtual private network, or VPN, as these are inexpensive and effectively conceal a user’s location.
“I am not sure how many of the Indonesian non-super fans know this, because TRAC has seen a lot of chatter over the upcoming ban from Indonesian supporters who seem increasingly worried that they are going to lose their connection to IS propaganda and communications with like-minded IS supporters in East Asia. And yes, there are plenty of other ways to communicate in secret. It is just that those are all usually one-on-one conversations, not entire chat rooms full of people,” she said.
In his apology to Rudiantara, Dubrov said Telegram has been working hard to block any terrorism-related chats. However, Khan believes it is unlikely that Telegram will open its data to any government, as its main claim to fame is privacy.
“Many other governments have asked for a back channel into the application; that has been flatly refused,” Khan said.
Indonesia is not the first country to ban and raise concern over Telegram. The app was also blocked in Oman and some Gulf states over the past two years, while Britain and Australia have frequently voiced concern over the app for its tight security, which they say involves safety risks.