Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging app, will enable users to cloak their phone numbers to protect demonstrators in Hong Kong from police monitoring, according to a individual with immediate understanding of the attempt.
The update to Telegram, scheduled for release over the next few days, will allow protesters to avoid discovering their identities in large group chats on the app’s mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities.
The Security Bureau of Hong Kong informed Reuters that it “was responsible for dealing with the present hard moment in order to restore public order.” It declined to comment on whether by using the Telegram app it had attempted to define demonstrators.
The Foreign Ministry of China, the Chinese Cyberspace Administration (CAC) and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office did not react to a request for comment instantly outside business hours.
According to protest organizers and followers, thousands of Hong Kong demonstrators take their signals from more than 100 organizations on Telegram. Protesters use encrypted applications like Telegram to move quickly through various group chats, with less danger of police infiltration, an in-depth study released previously this month by Reuters said.
The groups are used to publish everything from news about upcoming demonstrations to advice on dousing police-fired tear gas canisters to suspected undercover police identities and access codes to Hong Kong buildings where demonstrators can hide.
Some demonstrators are concerned that officials might use Telegram’s dependence on the movement to monitor and arrest organizers. Telegram chat groups used to organize government demonstrations are frequently available to anyone and pseudonyms are used by respondents.
By uploading phone numbers, Telegram enables customers to search for other customers. This feature enables a fresh customer to rapidly learn whether the app is already being used by those in a phone’s contact book, the group said.
Some demonstrators claim they think that the feature has been exploited by Chinese or Hong Kong safety authorities by uploading big amounts of phone numbers. Reuters couldn’t determine whether this happened.
The app matches the phone numbers in the group automatically with the customer names. Authorities then only need to ask local telecom service holders of telephone numbers to know the real identities of the customers.
Telegram has found proof that the Chinese officials in Hong Kong or the mainland may have uploaded figures to identify demonstrators, the individual with immediate understanding of the scenario said. But whether officials have used this tactic effectively to identify demonstrators is uncertain.
A group of Hong Kong technicians who published their findings on an online forum previously this month also said that a characteristic in the design of Telegram may have enabled Chinese or Hong Kong officials to know about users ‘ true identities.
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Working on the fix Telegram would enable users to disable matching by telephone number. This choice is a balance between making it simple for consumers to discover their contacts and the privacy needs of those who depend on the State Security Agent Protection App, the source said.
But broad implementation of the optional safety environment would make the app much more difficult to use for the vast majority of its over 200 million customers, who depend on uploading mobile contacts to recognize friends and family members on the app, the source said.
Telegram chief executive Pavel Durov said the messaging service encountered a cyber attack “government actor-sized” and pointed to China as its probable nation of origin in June.
He did not provide any further information, but he said the attack coincided with Hong Kong protests. At that moment, the Chinese Cyberspace Administration (CAC) did not react to a faxed request for comment.
Telegram’s move comes as a number of prominent militants and three lawmakers were detained by Hong Kong police on Friday. Since the protests started three months ago, nearly 900 individuals have been detained.