WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With Telegram, a popular encrypted news app, users can disguise their phone numbers to protect demonstrators in Hong Kong from being monitored by Chinese authorities.
FILE PHOTO: Protesters check their phones while participating in a protest inside Yuen Long MTR station, which a month ago in Yuen Long, New Territories, Hong Kong, China, staged an attack by alleged members of the Triad gang in August 21, 2019. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
The Telegram update, due to be released in the next few days, will allow demonstrators to prevent Chinese authorities from discovering their identity in the chats of large groups of the app.
Thousands of demonstrators in Hong Kong are leaning against more than 100 telegram groups. According to a Reuters report released earlier this month, demonstrators use encrypted apps like Telegram to quickly move through multiple group chats and reduce the risk of police infiltration.
The groups are used to publicize everything from news of forthcoming protests to tips for pouring tear gas canisters fired by the police into the identities of alleged covert police and access codes to Hong Kong buildings, in where demonstrators can hide.
Protesters fear that the Chinese authorities may use the telegram's confidence to monitor and arrest organizers. Telegram chat groups for organizing public protests are often accessible to everyone and participants use pseudonyms.
According to a group of engineers from Hong Kong, who published their findings in an online forum earlier this month, the Chinese authorities may have identified the true identities of users based on a feature in Telegram's design.
Telegram allows users to search for other users by uploading phone numbers. With this feature, a new user can quickly determine if the contacts in his phone book are already using the app, the group said.
Protesters believe Chinese security officials have exploited the feature by uploading large numbers of phone numbers.
The app automatically compares phone numbers with the usernames in the group. The Chinese authorities then only have to request the owners of the telephone numbers from the local telecommunications service to find out the true identities of the users.
Telegram has found evidence that Chinese authorities may have uploaded numbers to identify demonstrators, a person with direct knowledge of the situation said. However, it is unclear whether the Chinese authorities have used this tactic successfully to track down demonstrators.
Hong Kong government authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
With the fixed telegram being worked on, users can deactivate the synchronization by telephone number. This option balances the ease of finding contacts with users and the privacy requirements of those who rely on the government security agent app.
Telegram to help protect Hong Kong's demonstrators with the update, the source said. The widespread adoption of the optional security setting would make using the app much more difficult for the vast majority of the more than 200 consumers who depend on uploading phone contacts to identify friends and family members in the app, the source said.
The telegram removal came on Friday when the Hong Kong police arrested a number of prominent activists and three lawmakers. Since the protests began three months ago, nearly 900 people have been arrested.
With protesters and authorities at an impasse and Hong Kong's first recession in a decade, speculation has grown that the city government could impose an emergency law granting it additional powers over detention, censorship and curfew.
The government would consider applying "all laws" to prevent violence, said Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who has become a lightning rod for the rage of the demonstrators.
Reporting by Joel Schectman in Washington; Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Leslie Adler