Telegram is the hot product in the secure messenger space. It has really grown in popularity over the past year with people migrating from WhatsApp due to privacy concerns. Around the middle of last year, Telegram had about 200 million users. Now it has over 500 million users and continues to grow. This Telegram review will show you why this messaging app is getting so much attention.
Note: While Signal has also benefited greatly from WhatsApp’s woes, Telegram seems to have received the largest influx of users.
In this Telegram review, we’ll look at Telegram’s features, pros, and cons. We’ll also talk about Telegram’s security and the controversy surrounding that. When evaluating Telegram for your own use, you will face a tradeoff between user base and usability on one hand and your real security needs on the other.
Many millions of people have already made the move to Telegram, regardless of concerns about the product’s security. You need to decide whether to follow the herd, or choose a potentially more secure product. So let’s get started with this Telegram review.
As we noted above, Telegram is growing like crazy. Their user base appears to have more than doubled, to half a billion users, in less than a year. On January 12, 2021, Telegram founder Pavel Durov wrote on his Telegram channel that,
In the first week of January, Telegram surpassed 500 million monthly active users. After that it kept growing: 25 million new users joined Telegram in the last 72 hours alone.
In addition to its huge user base, Telegram offers the full range of features you would expect to find in the best secure messaging apps. This includes features like:
- Multi-device simultaneous login
- Two-Step Verification (2 Factor Authentication, or 2FA)
- Self-destructing messages
Note: Telegram also offers a number of additional special features that we’ll talk about a little later in this review.
Telegram is available for iOS and Android. In addition, they offer desktop versions for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. There is also a web version. Beyond these, there are a number of unofficial Telegram apps for various other devices. In other words, you can use Telegram on virtually any device you might wish.
The company behind Telegram
Telegram Messenger was created by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, and debuted on August 14, 2013. The company is headquartered in London, with the development team based in Dubai.
The Telegram app is free of charge. Right now the company is funded through a donation by Pavel. However, he says they are going to start monetization in 2021. They plan to introduce their own advertising platform that is, “…user-friendly, respects privacy and allows us to cover the costs of server and traffic.” The company is also considering selling premium sticker packs to raise funds. All that said, Mr. Durov is adamant that they will not sell the company, and that all current features will remain free of charge.
Like we noted in the Signal review, Telegram offers end-to-end (E2E) encryption. Unlike Signal, however, the E2E encryption is not active by default. E2E encryption is only available for Telegram’s Secret Chats, a type of one-to-one chat, and for voice calls. While the E2E encryption is automatic for voice, you need to manually activate Secret Chats in each case where you want to use them. If you want true security and privacy for your Telegram communications, you need to use Secret Chats or voice calls.
Using Secret Chats is a good idea, but I also have concerns about the security of those chats. That’s because the cryptographic community has some doubts about the MTProto protocol that provides security for Telegram messages. MTProto is a custom mobile protocol designed by the Telegram team. I do not feel qualified to judge the cryptographic integrity of Telegram’s architecture. However, you can get a good sense of what the experts have to say by visiting this Wikipedia page.
By default, Telegram stores most messages on their servers. The exceptions are Secret Chats and voice chats. While Telegram encrypts your data while it is stored on their servers, and takes efforts to ensure that your data is secure while on their servers, this approach is inherently less secure than applying E2E encryption to all messages at all times.
Third-party audits and testing
We contacted Telegram about audits and third-party test results. They told us that, “Multiple researchers and security experts have analyzed Telegram’s encryption.” They also provided a paper from two researchers in Italy who examined the MTProto 2.0. What I was not able to turn up is any formal security audit or analysis conducted by a cybersecurity firm.
This is a drawback considering that other secure messenger services, such as Wire and Signal, have conducted formal third-party audits and published the results. We also discussed this in our Wickr Review.
If Telegram receives a court order that confirms you’re a terror suspect, we may disclose your IP address and phone number to the relevant authorities. So far, this has never happened. When it does, we will include it in a semiannual transparency report published at: https://t.me/transparency.
Apparently, these conditions have never been met since the channel remains empty. It would be interesting to see requests other than just court orders confirming that someone is a terror suspect. Perhaps something like the semiannual transparency report published by Wickr at this location.
Telegram messaging apps
For this Telegram review, I tested the Telegram Android app and Windows desktop app. As with many other secure messaging apps, Telegram requires you to register your phone number when creating an account, so our first stop is the mobile version.
Installing and using the Telegram Android app
As with most Android apps, you can simply download Telegram from the app store. But if you are feeling extra cautious, you can download the Android APK directly from the Telegram website here. Whichever way you go, then simply launch the app and use your phone number to register an account. Opening the app shows you a standard messenger app type interface.
Telegram sports a full range of communication methods including text, voice, and video chats, along with file and location sharing. I don’t need to explain these features to you. If you’ve used any messenger over the years, you know how this all works.
But Telegram has a bunch of additional features you may be less familiar with…
Additional Telegram messenger features
Telegram Group chats. Most messaging apps give you a way to talk to a small group of people all at the same time. Telegram takes this to a whole different level.
A Telegram group chat can have up to 200,000 members. As you can imagine, this kind of thing could be very useful for organizing masses of people. Reportedly Telegram group chats helped Hong Kong protesters organize their giant pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Channels. Channels are a way to broadcast messages to an unlimited number of Telegram users. While this was originally a form of one-to-many communication, Telegram has added the ability for the “many” to comment on what they see in the channel, making this a more interactive mode of communication.
Telegram Passport. This is a way to store your identity documents in an encrypted space from which you can share those documents that require you to show ID.
Persistent conference calls. This addition to the voice chat feature makes it possible for individual participants in a voice chat to leave and rejoin the call without disruption.
Importing chat history from other apps. If you are considering moving to Telegram from another service (WhatsApp for example), this feature could be extremely handy. You can learn more about it here.
Unsend anything. With this feature, you can unsend any message you’ve ever sent or received, for both you and the other person. Taking this concept even further you can now also delete private chats for both yourself and the other person. They say the internet never forgets, but you can now force it to, at least in Telegram.
This is just a sampling of some of the cool and useful additional features you can find in Telegram. And more keep coming. To see the latest new features, check out the Telegram blog.
Telegram desktop apps
Telegram Desktop apps install using the standard procedures for the operating system. To sync a desktop app to your account, you simply enter the phone number you registered with.
Telegram desktop will send a login code to your phone. Enter that code in the desktop app to complete the connection and Telegram desktop will download all your account info. Within seconds you will see the desktop version of the Telegram interface.
One thing I don’t particularly like about using the Telegram desktop app is that the desktop doesn’t have all the same capabilities as the mobile version. But this is a common issue with the desktop versions of mobile messenger apps. After all, mobile devices have far more sensors and capabilities than the old Windows desktop I am running the app on right now.
One thing I do really like about using the desktop version of Telegram (and other messengers) is that I have a full keyboard to work with when I need to send long text messages or send large files.
And don’t forget about the Telegram web client. It is ideal for when you need temporary access to Telegram. It is important to remember to use a secure browser if you want to ensure security and privacy are maintained while using the web client.
Telegram doesn’t have a Support page per se. Instead, they have created FAQ pages that serve in its place. The main FAQ page (below) covers around 100 basic topics, while the Advanced FAQ page covers another couple dozen more technical topics.
While I have found their FAQ pages to be sufficient for any questions I had, Telegram does also have a Support team you can contact if the FAQs do not answer your questions. A complete and current list of methods for contacting the Support staff is included in the main FAQ page here.
While Telegram provides its own FAQ pages, in this section of the Telegram review we’ll cover several frequently asked questions from the SecurityTech perspective.
Why is Telegram banned in some countries?
Countries that ban the use of Telegram (Russia and Iran for example) tend to cite national security as the reason. Those governments believe they should be able to spy on their citizen’s communications. An app that uses E2E encryption and thereby prevents the government from spying on the populace makes that very difficult. Enter the ban hammer.
How secure is Telegram messenger?
The jury seems to still be out on how secure Telegram really is. The proprietary MTProto protocol that Telegram uses has been criticized by cybersecurity experts numerous times over the last few years.
Hopefully, testing will eliminate these concerns for the latest version of the protocol, MTProto 2.0. The fact that countries are banning Telegram is another argument for its security. If government agencies could crack the encryption and read user messages, why would they bother to ban the use of the app?
Does Telegram protect my privacy?
They can also read any of your messages (other than encrypted secret chats and voice calls) to investigate violations of their Terms of Service. And they may share some of your personal data with companies in the Telegram Group and with other Telegram users you choose to communicate with.
In other words, Telegram is not nearly as private as other secure messaging apps we have reviewed, such as Signal and Wickr.
What can I do to increase my privacy in Telegram?
There is one big step you can take to increase your privacy in Telegram. Use a VPN. VPNs protect your privacy by preventing your true IP address from being exposed when you communicate with websites or services like Telegram.
Your true IP address can help others to track your activities online, even identify you personally. While a VPN won’t prevent Telegram from recording your metadata, it will cause that metadata to be associated with an IP address owned by your VPN, rather than with your IP address.
One other thing you can do to increase your privacy when using Telegram is to sign up for the service using an anonymous SMS service. Such a service will rent you a temporary phone number you can use to receive an SMS message from Telegram and complete the registration process.
Telegram for business
Like WhatsApp or Signal, Telegram offers only a single free version of the messenger. Telegram may in the future offer additional paid features, or run ads. But as of the publish date of this Telegram review, it remains a 100% free product.
Telegram Review Conclusion
Telegram is an incredibly popular secure messaging app. With over 500 million users, it is one of the biggest messaging services around. For a huge portion of the world’s population, it is an excellent choice.
However, there are questions about how secure Telegram really is. Beyond that, the company collects lots of metadata about its users and is capable of reading the vast majority of messages.
If you just want a fun, powerful messenger app with a large user base, Telegram could be exactly what you need. But if strong security and full privacy of your messaging activities is important, you might want to consider other secure messengers we have reviewed.