October 5, 2022

Telegram Has a Serious Doxing Problem


In a Telegram message, company spokesperson Remi Vaughn said: “Since its launch, Telegram has actively moderated harmful content on its platform—including the publication of private information. Our moderators proactively monitor public parts of the app as well as accepting user reports in order to remove content that breaches our terms.”

Telegram, which now claims more than 700 million active users worldwide, has a publicly stated philosophy that private communications should be beyond the reach of governments. That has made it popular among people living under authoritarian regimes all over the world (and among conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and “sovereign citizens” in democratic countries.) 

But the service’s structure—part encrypted messaging app, part social media platform—and its almost complete lack of active moderation has made it “the perfect tool” for the kind of doxing campaigns occurring in Myanmar, according to digital rights activist Victoire Rio.

This structure makes it easy for users to crowdsource attacks, posting a target for doxing and encouraging their followers to dig up or share private information, which they can then broadcast more widely. Misinformation or doxing content can move seamlessly from anonymous individual accounts to channels with thousands of users. Cross-posting is straightforward, so that channels can feed off one another, creating a kind of virality without algorithms that actively promote harmful content. “Structurally, it’s suited to this use case,” Rio says. 

The first mass use of this tactic occurred during Hong Kong’s massive 2019 democracy protests, when pro-Beijing Telegram channels identified demonstrators and sent their information to the authorities. Hundreds of protesters were sentenced to custodial sentences for their role in the demonstrations. But with the city split along “yellow” (pro-protests) and “blue” (pro-police) lines, channels were also set up to dox police officers and their families. In November 2020, a telecom company employee was jailed for two years after doxing police and government employees over Telegram. Since then, Telegram doxing appears to be spreading to new countries. 

In Iraq, militia groups and their supporters have become adept at using Telegram to source information about opponents, such as leaders of civil society groups, which they then broadcast on channels with tens of thousands of followers. Sometimes, bounties are offered for information, according to Hayder Hamzoz, founder of the Iraqi Network for Social Media, an organization that tracks social media use in the country. Often, these come with direct or implicit threats of violence. Targets have faced harassment and violence, and some have had to flee their homes, Hamzoz says. 

Hamzoz works with a help line to assist activists who are targeted on social media. He said that the use of Telegram for doxing began in late 2019. “Since then the level increased, I can say, more than 400 percent,” he said. “There are too many examples.”

WIRED saw several posts, including those in channels with tens of thousands of followers, that published personal information, including phone numbers and work addresses, of individuals. Hamzoz has been targeted on multiple occasions, with posts accusing him of being a spy for the US government. He says that he has shared these posts with Telegram. 

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