SINGAPORE: Popular messaging app Telegram has made headlines in recent months for being linked to a spate of crimes that include illegal drug activities.
Most recently, five people, including three teenagers, were arrested by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) for their suspected involvement in drug transactions through the app.
The use of chat applications that allow for closed communication, such as Telegram, is popular among drug offenders to buy and sell controlled drugs, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) said in response to CNA’s queries.
CNB also said it observed the phenomenon as early as 2019 and has arrested more than 500 drug offenders who used Telegram for their illegal drug activities.
Last month, a man uploaded photos of a woman he had met once through a dating app, along with a sex video, on a Telegram channel that shared sexual content.
So why is Telegram becoming the go-to app for criminals? And can the company be held accountable? CNA finds out from experts.
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Telegram is a hotbed for crime because it offers effective reach, privacy, and anonymity, criminal lawyers told CNA.
The messaging app has been steadily rising in popularity in recent years, crossing 700 million monthly active users in November 2022, according to Statista.
To some extent, the surge in criminal activity on Telegram could simply parallel the increase in usage, said Ng Yuan Siang from Eugene Thuraisingam LLP.
Telegram’s channels and public groups, which can accommodate up to 200,000 members, are easily searchable by anyone via the app’s built-in search bar. This makes it easier for criminals to reach out to new audiences, compared to other messaging platforms, he added.
“Telegram’s groups function, which allows users to join communities without having to be individually contacted, means that providers of illicit materials and substances can reach huge numbers of people,” said Adrian Wee from Lighthouse Law LLC.
Mr Wee added that anonymity and privacy are the primary reasons why Telegram is attractive to criminals.
He also noted that Telegram was one of the first messaging apps to offer end-to-end encryption, which allowed users to operate without the fear of law enforcement reading their messages.
End-to-end encryption can deter third-party access to data, according to James Gomez Jovian Messiah from Edmond Pereira Law Corporation.
Besides end-to-end encryption, Telegram allows its users to maintain anonymity and delete data within the chat app.
Telegram offers “self-destructing messages and remote wipe-out to clear all data on the chat”, Mr James Gomez noted.
This means that even if law enforcement gets hold of a user’s device, messages would not be retrievable, said Mr Wee.
Mr James Gomez also highlighted that web-based messaging platforms like Telegram do not require an active phone line, allowing users who wish to remain untraceable to register for the app.
“Anyone can use an online platform to get a temporary phone number, ‘burner’ number, to register for Telegram-type platforms,” he explained.
“The temporary or burner number is only required to receive a one-time password to register for a user account on Telegram. Shortly after the registration, the burner number would cease to be in use.
However, the user would have created a Telegram account that can be used to do an assortment of things, he added.
These features offer a “level of control” where one can “market illegal items and control the data where required”, Mr James Gomez said.
“These features allow a person or a syndicate to operate remotely in cyberspace with a limited scope of being traced virtually.”
Pre-registered, anonymous phone numbers can also be easily obtained to register for Telegram through “black markets”, which help criminals conceal their footsteps, according to Mr Ng.
For instance, one can use a Telegram-affiliated cryptocurrency to purchase anonymous phone numbers through a platform to register for a Telegram account.
But Mr Ng said the messaging app is far from a “foolproof” platform for criminals.
“Many illegal transactions inevitably manifest outside of the messaging platforms, for example, drug transactions result in deliveries, cash payments and bank transfers, all of which may lead to paper trails and points of failure which law enforcement organisations can capitalise on in identifying perpetrators,” he explained.
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CHALLENGES FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES
Law enforcement agencies face several challenges when it comes to crimes that occur through Telegram.
They include difficulties in obtaining evidence, limitations related to the data stored by Telegram, and the complexities of tracing criminal syndicates.
Telegram stated on its website that it may disclose a user’s IP address and phone number if it receives a court order confirming that the user is a terror suspect, but the messaging app says this has never happened.
There have been documented instances where Telegram has disclosed user information to comply with court orders “outside of the terror context”, Mr Ng told CNA.
He cited a case in late 2022 when the messaging app complied with a New Delhi court order to disclose information about the administrators of Telegram channels accused of copyright infringement.
Still, Mr Ng noted that there is “the question of how useful this information can be to the authorities”.
“Pursuant to the New Delhi order, it only disclosed the names, phone numbers and IP addresses of the accounts associated with the channel in question. These might be enough to identify perpetrators in many cases.
“However, it is also possible that the identified perpetrator could be based overseas and outside the reach of Singapore’s authorities, or that a sophisticated criminal could still be behind additional layers of concealment,” Mr Ng said.
Mr James Gomez also highlighted that criminal activities conducted on Telegram often involve organised crime, which “creates a chain which is harder to trace”.
“(Organised crime) involves multiple persons who may not know each other to create a single transaction. From the operator of the account, the order consolidator, the delivery man, to the mastermind of the operation, these persons are often kept distinctively separate without the knowledge of the other’s particulars or position.”
Data recovery could also be a challenge for law enforcement agencies, especially with cloud and web-based storage technology, he said.
The sheer volume and scale of messaging activity on messaging apps also complicate law enforcement efforts, Mr Wee said.
“Communities often contain thousands of users, each of whom may also message each other privately. New communities or groups can also spring up almost instantaneously, making detection and tracking difficult,” he added.
A CNB spokesperson told CNA that its anti-drug operations are guided by careful intelligence gathering and effective investigations to disrupt the supply of controlled drugs and neutralise drug activities.
“These drug offenders may think that such chat applications would enable them to transact anonymously. However, regardless of the platform or tactics used in an attempt to evade detection, drug offenders cannot escape the long arm of CNB’s enforcement efforts,” the spokesperson said.
CAN TELEGRAM BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE?
Holding Telegram accountable for criminal activities carried out on the messaging app will be difficult, according to two lawyers CNA spoke to.
Telegram can argue that it has no control over the content that is exchanged on the app, said Mr Wee, adding that the use of end-to-end encryption also allows Telegram to “claim that it has no knowledge of the contents of messages exchanged”.
Messaging apps like Telegram are also often located in jurisdictions in which enforcement of judgments or orders is difficult, he added.
Mr James Gomez said that it would be challenging to establish criminal liability – which often involves intention – against Telegram which is a “significantly bona fide application for communication”.
However, lawyers CNA spoke to highlighted that messaging apps such as Telegram may be held legally accountable for criminal activities carried out on their platform under the newly-enacted Online Criminal Harms Act 2023 (OCHA), which was passed in Parliament on Jul 5.
“The OCHA will enable the authorities to deal more effectively with illegal material online,” Mr Ng said.
“The OCHA allows the government to issue directions to online services through which criminal activities are conducted. It applies to select criminal offences, such as online scams, sexual offences, online gambling and drug trafficking.”
“Where there has been non-compliance with directions, the government may issue orders against non-compliance, including orders blocking or restricting access in Singapore to the messaging platform in question. The government can also make an order for the removal of the messaging platform from Singapore app stores,” he added.
Mr James Gomez said that the Act “provides better access for law enforcement agencies to control online illegal activities and to allow them to better regulate illegal online activities”.
The Act allows law enforcement to obtain information from online service providers such as Telegram which makes tracing criminal activities more effective, Mr James Gomez added.
WHAT CAN TELEGRAM DO TO DETER CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES?
User verification needs to be enhanced to deter criminal activities on platforms such as Telegram, said Mr James Gomez.
“Enhanced user verification such as photo identification, particulars requests and/or mobile service provider verification to confirm a legitimate phone number would allow Telegram to be more responsible towards society and to deter criminal activities.”
But asking what Telegram can do to prevent illegal activity “presumes that Telegram is prepared or willing to take measures to deter criminal activities”, Mr Adrian Wee noted.
“Telegram’s founders have gone on record (as) saying that they believe the right to privacy trumps concerns over the platform being used for illicit activity (or even terrorism),” he said.
In response to CNA’s queries, the messaging app said: “Since its creation, Telegram has actively moderated harmful content on its platform including the sale of drugs and public distribution of pornography”.
“Our moderators proactively monitor public parts of the platform and accept user reports in order to remove content that breaches our terms of service.”
Telegram added that its moderators will examine and take appropriate actions when users report content that breaches its terms of service. When necessary, the app will ban users and remove groups, channels and bots.