Telegram: the scathing article at heise.de – an analysis

The scathing verdict on Telegram by heise still causes indignation. We explain why WhatsApp is worse. A critical guest post from shrugg1e.

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The crushing article by editor Jürgen Schmidt often generated a veritable wave of indignation. heise online presents Durows Messenger as a veritable „data protection nightmare“. Even Zuckerberg’s market leader WhatsApp works much more effectively when it comes to protecting the privacy of its users, Schmidt argues. Instead of presenting Telegram as a refuge for hackers, conspiracy theorists, right-wing radicals and other cyber criminals, heise took a closer look at the security aspects of Telegram. Our guest author shrugg1e took a closer look at the argumentation.

Is Telegram really a privacy nightmare?

At the end of November an article about the popular Messenger Telegram was published on the news portal heise.de. Within a few days, almost 1,100 (!) comments accumulated there. The article obviously hit a sensitive nerve. So let’s take a closer look at the published theses. By the way, just one year earlier, the same editor had publicly demonized WhatsApp at heise for disclosing far too much data to third parties.

Initially the article on heise online is about Telegram opening a typed URL in the background to generate a link preview. So far, so unspectacular. The point of criticism was that not the client itself (smartphone, PC, etc.) establishes a connection to the URL, but a Telegram proxy. This should be the first „privacy nightmare“. WhatsApp, on the other hand, praised Jürgen Schmidt for saying that access to the URL was only possible from the client itself.

Telegram

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Counterarguments

With WhatsApp, the unique IP address of the smartphone can be used to link to a person. Telegram prevents a link through the intermediate proxy. Since only the telegram server contacts the web pages, URL calls cannot be assigned to any individual user. The user can therefore disguise his identity.

For unencrypted chats Telegram has found a practicable solution. For secret chats with end-to-end encryption you can even switch off the link preview. This can be done here under Privacy and Security > Data Settings. Then the Telegram server cannot collect any information about the contents of the chats. By the way, the function criticized here is described exactly the same in the Telegram Settings. So there is actually no trace of data protection problems or secret data collection.

There is no possibility to adjust the link preview method in WhatsApp. This is simply not provided.

 

Criticism #2 – Storage of data on telegram servers

The second issue was that all your messages are stored on the Telegram servers and thus Telegram and government agencies have potential access to them. There are „secret chats“ at Telegram. But they have many disadvantages and only few users know about them.

WhatsApp does it better; without access to the smartphone, you can’t get the messages. Besides, nothing is known about Telegram’s motives. Schmidt questions: Why is such a service offered free of charge? Something is not right here!


Counterarguments

What can one say to this. The thesis that there is a cloud copy of chat histories is true. But this is exactly what makes Telegram interesting for so many. In these times of home office, where you sit at your PC a lot, a real cloud messenger that offers excellent multi-device support is simply very practical. It offers significant value over WhatsApp. After all, WhatsApp software always needs a smartphone to work. Telegram’s real desktop and tablet clients are in no way comparable to the upgraded web versions of WhatsApp, which are then advertised to the user as a stand-alone app.

Öffentliche Telegram-Gruppe

Again Telegram plays with open cards, the storage of the communication contents is explained in the FAQ. If you don’t like that, you can always start an end-to-end encrypted „secret chat“. The criticized disadvantages, that hardly anyone would know the secret chat, do not apply. Then it would be an advantage to simply read the instructions at your leisure.

Group chats are a different matter again, more about this in the conclusion. The argument that the software basically only runs on one device (the smartphone) is no different with WhatsApp. On the contrary, the desktop versions of Telegram are very easy to use and are also constantly being developed further. The oh-so-destructive arguments against Telegram are in my opinion simply questionable.

Cloud copy of WhatsApp’s chats

Unfortunately, the heise editor does not mention that there may also be a cloud copy of the chats from WhatsApp. In times of free cloud storage, a large number of users may have activated backup in Google Drive or in iCloud. Why shouldn’t the authorities have access to it?

If government agencies are interested in chat content, then I think it works much easier with Whatsapp than with Telegram. Since state Trojans and encryption backdoors are the exception rather than the rule, the option of simply adding another device to the account is increasingly being used. Then all content is mirrored to this device. Not so with Telegram: Secret chats are only available on the device on which they were started and are never synchronized. Furthermore, the operator of Telegram is known to be very reluctant to disclose information to any authorities. This fact has often caused Telegram, unlike WhatsApp, a lot of trouble. And not only in Russia.

Telegram

WhatsApp is not open source, Telegram is partly open

At least they mention that WhatsApp is closed source. So you can’t verify that all that Facebook claims is true. And honestly: do you trust Facebook? Unfortunately, the article does not mention that Telegram is open source, with the exception of the server components.

How Telegram is financed and why this is actually not so dubious is also described in the FAQ.

On the other hand, the question arises: If WhatsApp is not able to „use“ anything from the chats except the metadata, how is WhatsApp financed? Because according to the heise article it supposedly „makes everything better“. I don’t believe that Mr. Zuckerberg is running a service that will certainly consume millions of dollars in operating costs just because he loves humanity and wants to do something good for it. It’s no secret that Facebook wants to make money with WhatsApp very soon. Advertisements in the status messages will be the first thing. Telegram will start to show interest at that point at the latest. Telegram is and will remain permanently free of advertising.

Signal as best messenger?

 

Signal (Logo)

Finally, Signal is recommended as the best messenger. Signal is very good and defines privacy correctly. But other messengers like Threema show that it works better. Here, unlike Signal, no real cell phone number is needed for registration. Threema has also announced to become open source, this was the biggest criticism so far. That a messenger is only as good as the contacts you have in it is not something we need to discuss. That is clear. In this respect, WhatsApp is of course ahead of the pack because of its popularity.

TL;DR

I agree with the criticism in the hot article on only one point: Group chats are better protected in WhatsApp than in Telegram. Unfortunately, Telegram does not (yet) have „secret group chats“. But it would be better than WhatsApp to switch to Threema for maximum data protection in group chats. Metadata from WhatsApp will continue to feed the Facebook data powerhouse. How powerful metadata is, has already been explained in detail by former NSA boss Hayden.

All other points of criticism are a result of lack of understanding and poor research, as the hateful comments in the article clearly show.

Further advantages of Telegram compared to WhatsApp are unfortunately not mentioned. For example, that you can chat without revealing your phone number. In this case the communication is purely via Telegram username. Or that you are not forced to upload your address book. Or the fact that there are public channels that you can follow, like the great channel from Tarnkappe.info ;-).

Thanks for reading!

I wish you a wonderful Advent season!

Your shrugg1e ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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This article was written by a guest author. You can reach him here at Twitter.

Tarnkappe.info

Lars Sobiraj fing im Jahr 2000 an, als Quereinsteiger für verschiedene Computerzeitschriften tätig zu sein. 2006 kamen neben gulli.com noch zahlreiche andere Online-Magazine dazu. Er ist der Gründer von Tarnkappe.info. Außerdem bringt Ghandy, wie er sich in der Szene nennt, seit 2014 an verschiedenen Hochschulen und Fortbildungseinrichtungen den Teilnehmern bei, wie das Internet funktioniert.