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Telegram, Signal Won’t Shield Your Chats from Hackers: Report

Next time when Telegram or Signal are hacked for whatever reason, which chat app do you have on your mind?

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Whatsapp and Telegram
The messaging app Telegram is displayed on a smartphone, July 15, 2017. VOA

By Nishant Arora 

So you have decided to open a Telegram account in the wake of the WhatsApp-NSO group spyware incident that affected 1,400 select users globally, including some in India. Some of you may even be attempting to join the chat app Signal for that elusive security that, unfortunately, was never there in the first place.

Take this seriously: Encryption is fundamentally flawed and once hackers get to know any vulnerability or bug in the app security ecosystem, including the mobile operating system, your personal data is at their mercy.

When you joined WhatsApp, end-to-end encryption was there and yet, a third-party spyware, Pegasus, found a backdoor entry to snoop on you. Now, you are looking to take shelter in other so-called secure chat apps.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp is the leader among chat apps having 1.5 billion global users with 400 million of them in India. Russia-headquartered Telegram has 200 million users globally, while Signal has more than 10 million (according to Google Play Store downloads). Both Telegram and Signal record a spike in users whenever there is a security breach or global outage with WhatsApp.

Unlike WhatsApp and Apple iMessage, Telegram conversations aren’t encrypted end-to-end by default. Instead, you have to select the “Secret Chat” feature for an extra layer of security. But even that does not ensure a safety net.

A recent research paper from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) listed striking flaws in Telegram — founded in 2013 by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov. Telegram uses its own proprietary messaging protocol called “MTProto”, which lacks scrutiny from outside cryptographers.

Telegram follows a conventional approach of using a Cloud storage for its data.

“This means that if an adversary is able to gain control of their server system, they will have access to (at least) unencrypted messages and definitely to all the metadata,” wrote MIT researchers Hayk Saribekyan and Akaki Margvelashvili.

Telegram initially asks for the contact list from the phone/desktop and stores them in their servers.

“This provides huge social network information for them that can either be attacked on their servers or can be possibly sold to different authorities without users’ consent,” the researchers added.

Whatsapp, Spyware, Users
Signal, on the other hand, has garnered support from many influential privacy advocates. Pixabay

The truth is: There will always be loopholes for governments, nation-state bad actors or individual hackers to snoop on you.

“Viruses like Pegasus affect the operating system of the mobile phone and the security provided by these messaging apps is rendered ineffective,” said Virag Gupta, a lawyer who is arguing the case in Supreme Court for data localisation in India.

“Apart from the government, privacy is threatened by private Internet companies and apps, even though they claim the data is encrypted,” Gupta told IANS.

Pegasus has been designed by Israel-based NSO Group to intercept communications sent to and from a device, “including communications over iMessage, Skype, Telegram, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and others”.

According to MIT researchers, even while using the “Secret Chat” to communicate, Telegram’s mobile application makes it possible for the third parties to observe the metadata information.

“For example, adversaries can learn when users go online or offline with down-to-the-second accuracy. Telegram does not require agreement from both parties to set up the communication between them. For this reason, an attacker might connect to the user and they will receive the metadata information without the user knowing anything about this,” the MIT team elaborated.

According to leading tech policy and media consultant Prasanto K. Roy, when WhatsApp discovered the Pegasus attack, it quickly fixed the vulnerability, informed users whom it could trace the hack to, informed the relevant governments and initiated legal proceedings against the spyware’s creators in the US federal court.

“Unlike WhatsApp/Facebook, competitors Signal or Telegram are unlikely to have the resources to do any or all of these in response to a bug. At the most, they’d fix the bug,” Roy told IANS.

Are the existing alternatives like Telegram and Signal any better?

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Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to logos of social media apps Signal, Whatsapp and Telegram projected on a screen in this picture illustration. VOA

“They are not necessarily better. Yes, hackers and governments may pay less attention to Telegram and Signal because of their smaller base. And Signal is open-source, so techies can check the code for vulnerabilities and fixes.

“But there is a lot of value to a company tackling the issue and reporting it to users and governments promptly and transparently, as WhatsApp did,” Roy noted.

According to Anoop Mishra, one of India’s leading social media experts, as long as third-party players are out there, chat apps will remain at risk, be it Signal or Telegram.

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“This is an era of information war and whosoever has the information — personal or otherwise — is at the risk of losing it. End-to-end encryption does not work, if there are vulnerabilities in the operating system,” Mishra told IANS.

Roy added: “Barring privacy-conscious activists, I do not expect to see a big exodus from WhatsApp, at least not for this reason.”

Next time when Telegram or Signal are hacked for whatever reason, which chat app do you have on your mind? (IANS)

Next Story

Indian Education Institutions Face Cyber Security Challenge

Indian Education Institutions receive cyber threats from hackers

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Cyber crimes
Indian education institutions are hit hard by cyber crimes. Pixabay

Education domain is one of the most “at-risk” industries in India, with the sector accounting for more than 30 per cent of cyber threats targeting enterprises in the country between July and September 2019, a new report from Seqrite, the enterprise arm of IT security firm Quick Heal Technologies, said on Wednesday.

Other industries that remained at high risk included manufacturing, BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance), media and entertainment and professional services — underlining that no sector remained immune from the growing cybersecurity challenge in the country.

Between July and September 2019, Seqrite detected and stopped more than 38 million cyber threats, including ransomware, malware, virus/worm infectors, cryptojacking and exploit-based attacks.

This marks an increase of four million and 10 million over the number of threats detected in Q2 2019 and Q1 2019, respectively.

It also marked a massive year-on-year increase of 12 million over the corresponding numbers in Q2 2018, which saw 26 million threats stopped by Seqrite.

“In the face of the growing cybersecurity challenge highlighted in the report, it is important that Indian organisations across industries understand and acknowledge the heightened severity and sophistication of the threat landscape,” said Sanjay Katkar, Joint Managing Director and Chief Technology Officer, Quick Heal Technologies.

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No sector remains immune from the growing cyber security challenge in the country. Pixabay

“Deploying robust, multi-layered, and tech-backed security solutions is no longer a luxury, but a critical necessity for enterprises across the country,” Katkar added.

The emergence of sophisticated ransomware such as “LockerGoga” marked a shift from a single-screen approach to leveraging ransomware as a sophisticated payload distribution platform.

Unsecured Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) was also targeted by ransomware such as “TFlower” to compromise the security of corporate enterprises and government agencies at scale.

Constantly evolving malware continued to use complex obfuscation techniques and attack methodologies to escape detection by conventional, signature-based cybersecurity approach.

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During the latest monitoring period, Trojans saw a huge surge in their adoption and were the preferred attack method deployed against Indian enterprises, with such intrusions accounting for 27 per cent of the total threats.

Other threats such as infectors (24 per cent), worms (17 per cent), PUAs (13 per cent), and cryptojacking (11 per cent) also remained popular amongst cybercriminals. (IANS)