Since the Ukraine war began, Telegram has become a critical source of information – and plenty of mis- and disinformation too – related to the conflict.
The Ukrainian government has been giving updates on the messaging service, its citizens have communicated with relatives and told the world about living conditions since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded their country a little more than a week ago, and hacktivists on both sides, pro-Russia communities – just about anyone wanting to know what’s going on in the war – have swelled its user ranks.
The app’s billionaire founder, Pavel Durov, born in St. Petersburg (what was Leningrad at the time of his birth in 1984) but now living a reclusive life in Dubai, has remained typically apolitical, talking only the rise in users and efforts to keep the service up. On Monday, however, he got a lot more personal.
In response to concerns, such as those raised by Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike, that Telegram or its employees could be pressured into providing Russia with Ukrainians’ personal data, a Telegram spokesperson said Durov had never given any Ukrainian’s data to Russia. That would include his time as cofounder and chief of Russian social media giant VKontakte (VK).
“Pavel Durov, neither personally, nor through any of his companies, never gave any data of Ukrainians to the Russian government,” the spokesperson said. They added that Telegram had never given any data on any user to Russian authorities. Unlike other major tech providers, Telegram does not have a transparency report that reveals how it provides user information to law enforcement across the globe.
Durov also published a Telegram post on Monday in which he raised his personal interest in the conflict. “On my Mom’s side, I trace my family line from Kyiv. Her maiden name is Ukrainian (Ivanenko), and to this day we have many relatives living in Ukraine. That’s why this tragic conflict is personal both to me and Telegram.”
He recounted his story of why he left Russia in 2013, after the federal policing agency, the FSB, demanded he provide “private data of the Ukrainian users of VK who were protesting against a pro-Russian President.” That story had previously been reported.
According to previous reporting, in 2014 Durov, valued by Forbes at just over $14 billion, sold his stake in VK, which he’d cofounded in 2006, leaving Alisher Usmanov, one of Russia’s sanctioned billionaires, effectively in charge. It came three years after Durov refused to censor VK accounts being used by activists to promote anti-Putin messages in support of protests against what they believed was a rigged 2011 election. Later, he had his home and business raided over bizarre allegations he ran over a police officer’s foot with his car. And in 2014, TechCrunch reported that he had been asked to provide data on Ukrainian leadership in the lead-up to the annexation of Crimea. Soon after, he fled Russia and launched Telegram.
Talking about the FSB demand for Ukrainians’ information, Durov said today, “I refused to comply with these demands, because it would have meant a betrayal of our Ukrainian users. After that, I was fired from the company I founded and was forced to leave Russia.”
“I lost my company and my home, but would do it again – without hesitation.
“I stand for our users no matter what. Their right to privacy is sacred. Now – more than ever.”
Telegram wrote in its own channel that “Telegram’s multi-national team includes many members from Ukraine. We all wish for an immediate end to the conflict.”
While Signal, the end-to-end encrypted messaging and calling app, has seen a bigger leap in users since the Russian invasion, Telegram has become the de facto platform for the Kyiv government to provide updates to the war effort and warn of imminent strikes.
Data released by cybersecurity company Check Point on Thursday showed a six-fold increase in Telegram groups with war themes on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Nearly a quarter of those Telegram groups were set up to coordinate cyberattacks on Russia, including the IT Army being coordinated by the Ukrainian government’s Ministry of Digital Transformation. Almost three-quarters are pushing “flash news of unedited and often unverified information,” Check Point said.
Meanwhile, VK has been shifting hands; its owners are closely aligned with the Kremlin. In December 2021, Usmanov had sold most of his company’s stake to a state-run insurance company, Sogaz, part-owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, another of Putin’s close friends and another subject of sanctions since the war started.