Eight signs of the danger of Telegram, one of Russia's most successful projects

Today, Telegram is one of the most popular apps on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian front, as evidenced by Similarweb's data for Ukraine and Russia. As of the end of 2023, it served 25 million Russians and 7 million Ukrainians. Most of Ukrainian ministries, state administrations, news agencies, and thoughtleaders are active users of Telegram. The same is true for Russia.

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Telegram is one of the most successful Russian projects of the 21st century. Although the messenger's representatives and its owner Pavel Durov are doing everything they can to stop being associated with Russia, it is still a Russian app. It has Russian developers and servers in Russia, and there is ample evidence of its cooperation with the Kremlin.

Telegram was launched in 2013 and in 11 years has managed to transform from a simple messenger into a powerful social network with anonymous channels, news, bots, and cryptocurrency where you can buy anything.

Durov and his company managed to convince many Ukrainians of their independence from Russia, but this independence exists only in statements, while in practice Telegram is a powerful information and intelligence weapon of the Kremlin. Here is what we know about this platform.

700 million

After the full-scale invasion, Ukrainians began to spend eight times more time on Telegram. The peak of popularity occurred on February 28-March 6, 2022, when we spent an hour on Telegram every day. Volunteers and the government have learned to use this platform to coordinate their work. Thanks to anonymous bots, refugees in the first months of the great war could find places to sleep and learn about the conditions of their stay abroad. Nowadays, Telegram notifies of air raids where sirens are not heard. It uses bots to collect information about Russian and Ukrainian equipment and troops.

In June 2022, Telegram had 700 million users and controlled 4% of the messenger market, becoming the most popular communication app in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan, and Cambodia. In 2023, it was ranked fourth most popular among communication apps on the planet. That's if you don't count WeChat and QQ, known only in China. The first place in terms of audience is occupied by India, where 70 million of its users live.

Telegram has also become the primary news source and a place for communication in Iran. In 2016, 20 out of 83 million (20%) Iranians were its users. However, the Committee to Protect Journalists has recommended that Iranian journalists not use Telegram due to security concerns.

Due to the almost complete lack of censorship, you can find anything on Telegram. In addition to the news feed, it also works as a huge marketplace. It is somewhat similar to a semi-anonymous darknet, which can be accessed in one click.


In December 2013, the Russian media reported that the FSB (The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) demanded that VKontakte provide data on members of groups associated with Euromaidan (including We Are Patriots of Ukraine, Fedorich is the Guarantor of the Constitution, Ukrainian Offensive, Cossack Citation and many others). Durov stated that he refused to do so.

Durov wrote: "The protection of people's personal data is worth it and is worth much more. Since December 2013, I have not owned any property, but I still have something more important—a clear conscience and ideals that I am ready to defend."

After the sale of Durov's stake in VKontakte and his dismissal as a director, he reportedly emigrated from Russia. However, according to his former colleague Anton Rosenberg, in the fall of 2014, Durov returned to his native St. Petersburg without any fuss or PR.

Since 2014, the Durov brothers' main project has been Telegram, which they created while working at VKontakte. For some time (at least until September 2017), the developers of both Telegram and VK, with whom Durov had allegedly had no connection since 2014, worked together in Singer's house on Nevsky Avenue in St. Petersburg.

Below, we will look at the facts that show that Telegram is still closely connected to Russia.

1. The Russian funding

Telegram has never been profitable. According to rough estimates, as of the end of this year, the company's total debts were expected to cross $530 million. For the first eight years, Telegram did not officially earn anything, and in 2021, advertising posts began to appear on the channels.

To advertise on the channels, a customer had to deposit at least €2 million to the account. The first ads promoted cryptocurrencies, mortgages, fake news, and dubious exchange rates.

Since June 2022, a premium subscription for users has been available for $5 monthly. Durov says that until 2021, he paid for the development and servers from his funds. Russian Forbes estimated Durov's share in VK at the time at $400 million.

However, the financial history of Telegram has more interesting pages: in 2018 and 2021, Durov raised $2.5 billion to launch a cryptocurrency and cover the company's debts. After an unsuccessful attempt to get permission for financial transactions from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Durov had to return the money with interest.

In 2018, Durov reported in documents to the SEC that he had received $850 million from 81 investors. He did not name the names of the investors, but some of them announced their investments themselves. Among the first official investors in the Telegram were:

Having lost money on cryptocurrency ideas, in 2021 the Durovs placed bonds on the St. Petersburg Stock Exchange. Usually, the choice of exchange depends on the location of potential investors. Thus, Durov relied on Russian assets.

In 2021, VTB Capital spent over $1 billion on Telegram bonds. This company is 60% owned by the Russian state and has been run by Putin's partner, Andrey Kostin, for over 20 years.

Another buyer of the bonds was Alfa Capital, owned by Mikhail Fridman, a Russian oligarch of Lviv origin and a sanctioned person in Ukraine and the European Union. For some time, Putin's eldest daughter, Maria, ran the Alfa Endo charity project, which Fridman funded. This shows the close relationship between the oligarch and the dictator.

Before the nationalization in July 2023, Fridman also owned the Ukrainian Sense Bank (formerly Alfa-Bank Ukraine), the mobile operator Kyivstar, and the producer of Morshyn mineral water. As of May 2023, Fridman's Russian company AlfaStrakhovanie cooperated with the Russian Guard, insuring the Russian occupants.

2. Blocking and unblocking by the Russian authorities

The legend that Telegram doesn't hand over data to the authorities was developed in 2017. A terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg subway killed 16 people. The FSB stated that the criminals coordinated their actions on Telegram and demanded that Durov provide it with so-called encryption keys. According to the legend, they would allow the FSB to read the suspects' correspondence. Meanwhile, Roskomnadzor filed a lawsuit against the social network, promising to block it in Russia if it refused to provide the keys. Durov said that the special services would not receive such information.

Telegram lost the case, and in April 2018, Roskomnadzor decided to block the messenger. However, this "blocking" was highly ineffective, as Roskomnadzor blocked addresses unrelated to Telegram. As a result, the messenger continued to work, and Google, Microsoft, and Amazon services were occasionally unavailable when Roskomnadzor blocked access to their servers. The record was set when 20 million IP addresses were blocked in one day. Telegram continued to operate, but none of Google's services were available then.

For comparison, it took several days to successfully block Facebook and Instagram in Russia (now, these social networks are only available through VPNs).

It can be concluded that the Russian authorities did not plan to block Telegram but only pretended to fight against it and Durov's independence. Implementing such a block is not difficult. For example, during the 2021 protests in Cuba, the main messengers, including Telegram, were blocked.

In 2020, Wired journalists asked the former spokesperson for Roskomnadzor to comment on the blocking. The answer was as follows: "I'm a wad of cotton, and in the current situation, it's a trap to participate in American investigations. Take care of yourself"—end of quote.

As with the story of Durov's high-profile departure and quiet return, unlike the widely discussed blocking, the "unblocking" of the Telegram went almost unnoticed.

Alexey Volin, deputy head of the Russian Ministry of Communications, said that Roskomnadzor and the prosecutor's office had stopped the blocking because it was "technically impossible," and the messenger team itself was already cooperating with the authorities. Thus, it was officially recognized that Telegram had been cooperating with Russian special services at least since the summer of 2018.

In March 2022, Oleg Matveichev, deputy head of the Committee on Information Policy, Information Technology and Communications of Russia said: "Durov found a compromise with the FSB... Telegram has installed equipment so that it can monitor all dangerous subjects."

According to the law on the protection of private data in Russia, all large companies that store Russians' private data on their servers are required to keep these servers in Russia. Telegram successfully operates in this country and complies with its laws, as local authorities have repeatedly confirmed. Therefore, Telegram keeps the servers with our correspondence and private data there.

3. Cooperation with autocratic governments

According to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, in 2011, shortly after the first rallies on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, Pavel Durov, in his correspondence with Vladislav Surkov, one of the ideologues of the attack on Ukraine and attempts to create the so-called “Novorossiya”, wrote about his VKontakte social network: "As you know, we have been cooperating with the FSB and the K Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for several years now, promptly releasing information about thousands of users of our network in the form of IP addresses, mobile phone numbers and other information necessary for their identification."

Durov wrote that there was no need to block opposition communities, as this would lead to an outflow of users to Western platforms that Russia would no longer be able to control. Durov still adheres to this approach today, which is why channels on Telegram are almost never blocked, regardless of content.

In 2017, in response to a request from the Iranian authorities, Durov blocked one of Iran's main opposition channels. In 2019, during the protests in Moscow, Roskomnadzor shut down all mobile Internet, and the anonymous Telegram channel Tovarishch Major published an archive of personal data of 3,000 protesters. The file's metadata stated that it was created by the Main Directorate of the Russian Interior Ministry in Moscow. By the way, no one blocked this channel either.

However, Telegram is in no rush to cooperate with democratic governments. The only publicly known case of Telegram cooperating with Western countries is Germany. After numerous requests for blocking extremist groups were ignored by the Russians, an open appeal to Durov was published in a German government newspaper, and he responded. After negotiations, German police announced the blocking of 81 channels and 90 groups. According to Spiegel, Telegram created an email for the police to communicate with.

4. Impact on Ukraine’s information space

In Ukraine, Telegram became very popular at the end of 2018, before the fateful presidential election. At that time, about 15 anonymous news channels appeared here, many of which were associated with Russia. They quickly gained popularity and began to influence public opinion, spreading fakes and propaganda.

According to Texty.org.ua, the most popular channels read by MPs from the Servant of the People in 2020 were the following (all of them pro-Russian):

The anonymous pro-Russian channel NachStab was even advertised on Kyiv billboards. The SBU exposed the head of the anti-Ukrainian network of channels who received instructions from Russia. He turned out to be an Odesa resident, one of the organizers of the Anti-Maidan riots in Odesa.

5. Concerns about encryption

End-to-end encryption (E2E encryption) is a reliable way to protect data, including text messages. The keys to decrypt such data are contained only on the device that sent the data and on the recipient's device. Anyone else, even if they get access to the encrypted correspondence, will not be able to decrypt it without obtaining the keys from either of these devices. Thus, data encrypted with end-to-end encryption can only be decrypted on the sender's and recipient's devices.

In 2015, Durov said in an interview that WhatsApp's big problem was privacy and that Telegram was much more secure. But this is not true, to put it mildly.

Telegram does not have end-to-end encryption by default, and it can only be enabled manually for secret chats. These chats can only be created from a smartphone and are not visible from a computer. You have to manually create a separate secret chat for each person you want to talk to.

In addition, independent analysts cannot analyze Telegram's code. The source code of the smartphone and computer applications is indeed open, but the Telegram server code is closed. Therefore, it is not known for sure what happens to the messages once they are on the servers, but one thing is clear: such messages are not encrypted with end-to-end encryption in most cases.

To see how Telegram can decrypt contacts, files, and all received and sent messages stored on its servers, just get a new smartphone, install Telegram on it, and log in to your account. You will see all your previous correspondence. In 2016, cybersecurity researcher Nima Fatemi and Signal messenger founder Moxie Marlinspike wrote about this problem.

This was confirmed to Wired by Elias Campo, who worked at Telegram for five years. After the publication, Telegram representatives said that this was not true and that Campo had never worked there, only volunteered for a short time. In response, Campo gave journalists documents for several years of work at the company (2016-2021) and screenshots of correspondence from his email on the Telegram domain with executives from Apple, Spotify, and Stripe on behalf of the company.

He also provided copies of contracts between Telegram and other companies with his signature. Another confirmation that the data is stored on servers in unencrypted form was obtained by Wired journalists in a private conversation with one of the former developers of the messenger, who asked not to be named. The head of Telegram's support service, Marcus Ra, confirmed that the company's employees can decrypt unclassified chats on Telegram's servers.

And there are also questions about end-to-end encrypted secret chats: when a user sends a website address in Telegram, a screenshot of that website appears in the chat. In 2021, a German researcher discovered that Telegram creates link previews on its servers for both regular and secret chats, and thus has access to the so-called secret correspondence.

However, this contradicts the meaning of secret chat because how can a server take a screenshot without the website address?

6. Servers located in Russia

In 2014, when Durov briefly left Russia, a legend emerged that the developers, servers, and office were located abroad. The office in London opened in 2014 and closed in 2019, and eventually announced that it would move to Dubai (UAE) to the Kazim Towers skyscraper.

These statements turned out to be false. After the German authorities were unable to get answers to their inquiries from Durov for a long time, in 2021, Spiegel journalists visited the Telegram office in Dubai. It turned out to be empty, and the building's concierge told reporters that she had not seen anyone enter the office for more than three years.

According to Anton Rosenberg, who worked for many years at VKontakte and later at Telegram, as of September 2017, Telegram's office was located on Nevsky Prospekt in Singer's house in St. Petersburg.

Telegram uses the services of two partners to transfer data: GlobalNet LLC and RETN. Russians, registered in Russia run both companies and have branches in the EU and the UK.

Earlier, we found out that users' correspondence is stored on Telegram's servers. The company's representatives do not say where exactly the servers are located, but in order for the correspondence to be transmitted without delays, the servers should be placed as close to the users as possible.

One of the key markets for Telegram is Russia, where GlobalNet and RETN have their own servers and data channels.

GlobalNet is registered in the Netherlands, and Telegram uses its facilities to operate in Europe. Although this provider also has communication channels in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Germany, Russia, and other countries, Telegram's traffic is legally considered European thanks to its registration. In 2020, GlobalNet listed Telegram as one of its key partners and had servers in several Russian cities.


In 2022, the Russian language disappeared from GlobalNet's website, and the Ukrainian version was added, along with all references to Moscow and St. Petersburg. This provider is run by Russian Alexei Zakrevsky, who lists two current places of work: Amsterdam and St. Petersburg. Also, as of August 2023, at least six of the company's eleven employees still lived in Russia.

Probably, it is there, on the Russian servers of its partners, that Telegram stores the correspondence of its users. This was indirectly confirmed by its "unblocking," after which all claims against the company disappeared, which means that it operates in accordance with Russian law, which obliges companies to keep Russian data in Russia.

Ukrainian researchers have also found servers that belong directly to Telegram in Russia. According to the GeoLite2 service, which shows the geographic location of IP addresses, as of September 2023, at least one of the telegram.org servers was still located in St. Petersburg. So, right now, during the war, some Telegram servers where you communicate with your friends and read the news are in Russia.

It should be noted that it is not always possible to identify a server's country of location by its IP address, and different services may point to different countries.

7. Employees located in Russia

During Telegram's "blocking" and the lawsuit with Roskomnadzor, the company's vice president, Ilya Perekopsky, the third person in the top management, publicly visited Russia. In July 2020, a month after the Telegram was "unblocked," Perekopsky spoke at a forum with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, where he criticized the US tax system. A month later, he vacationed with the governor of the Vologda Oblast in the forest.

Russian Alyona Sofyina lives in Moscow and works in the studio of Ukrainophobe Artem Lebedev. She is the author of some of the most popular telegram stickers.

In the summer of 2023, I searched for Telegram employees who listed Russia as their place of residence on LinkedIn. Of the 41 employees I found, at least three lived in Russia. Tikhon Davydov, one of the employees who allegedly lived and worked in the Emirates, was also a lecturer at Moscow State University from 2018 to 2022.


Tikhon is also a chess player, and in his profile on Chess.com in June 2022 he wrote "Hello, my name is Tikhon Davydov, I live in Moscow." Subsequently, Telegram introduced a non-linkedin policy that prohibits employees from having accounts on this social network.

8. Evidence for the FSB

In August 2022, Kherson journalist Ihor Bondarenko was taken prisoner by Russia while trying to leave the city. Two months earlier, he had deleted all correspondence from his messengers, including a telegram. But during interrogation, the Russian military, according to Igor, brought his correspondence in a secret chat with representatives of the Right Sector for six months. Such cases are not uncommon.

Such cases could be explained by the work of special programs that collect information from open chats, analyze public data, de-anonymize users, and collect their digital portraits. However, these programs cannot restore deleted correspondence, especially from secret chats, which are supposedly encrypted and stored exclusively on the interlocutors' devices. At least, that's what the Telegram claims.

Why is it dangerous?

According to research by the sociological group "Rating" (one of the largest non-governmental and independent research institutions in Ukraine) for 2023, over 15 months, the proportion of Ukrainians reading news on Telegram increased fourfold (from 11% to 41%), and concerns about its dangers have been raised by various thought leaders. At the same time, each of us, by using Telegram, makes it more valuable for other users.

Many people think, "I don't share anything secret, so there's nothing to hide from me," but even in such cases, data from our smartphones help Telegram analyze information and obtain important intelligence.

For example, many volunteers who assist the Armed Forces of Ukraine gather and maintain contact with military personnel and each other on Telegram. Although they live in Lviv or Kyiv, and their correspondence and geolocation might seem harmless to the military, data from their smartphones can help Telegram analyze information and obtain important intelligence.

Some people even limit the transmission of private data on Telegram but don't give it up because "it's convenient," However, Telegram can analyze not only our own correspondence and transmitted files but also metadata, such as activity time, number of calls and interlocutors, most active interlocutors, and contact lists.

The latter is a very important point. With lists of contacts of millions of people, Telegram can analyze connections between them, identify people's real names, their sphere of activity ("Alexander SBU," "Nikolai intelligence," or "Sergey General Staff"), find additional phone numbers that "anonymous" Telegram accounts may be registered to, and so on.


Thus, Telegram can create a digital portrait of even those who do not have Telegram accounts but are in someone's contact list. The more such mentions there are in different people's contacts, the greater the accuracy.

Signal as a good alternative option

Telegram has most active Ukrainians, so deleting it is not easy but possible. First of all, pay attention to alternatives, in particular, Signal. As of today, it’s one of the most secure messengers, it’sfree,created in the USA, and encrypts all correspondence and calls without exception. Signal's employees cannot access anything written in chats or said during calls.

Suggest to your contacts switch their communication to a messenger with better encryption. Try not to share any sensitive data through Telegram. If you absolutely have to do it, use the secret chat option.. Instead of reading news in Telegram channels, subscribe to the publications and thought leaders you need on other social networks, if you use them, or browse news sites. Remember what RSS is. This is a time-tested and convenient way to read news in feed readers like Inoreader, Feedly, and Reeder.

Media and bloggers can do the same. For example, the Ukraїner team in February 2023 published the material "What's wrong with Telegram" and, in June, completely stopped communicating with it and closed their channel. Giving up Telegram may be inconvenient at first, but ultimately, alternatives can be found.

The Ukrainian businessman Yaroslav Azhnyuk published the article "Why doesn't Ukraine restrict the use of the Russian Telegram app?" According to Yaroslav, mobile applications with access to cameras, microphones, and location are complex systems, and no one can guarantee they will not covertly spy on their owners.

Leaving Telegram

While you are in the process of transition, take simple but necessary steps to reduce the data Telegram can receive about you.

  1. First of all, disable access for Telegram to contacts, files, camera, microphone, and location on your smartphone.
  2. Do not share anything important in Telegram, and do not transmit passwords or sensitive and private data.
  3. On your computer, use the web version in the browser; it has significantly fewer opportunities for tracking.

We pay for the convenience of Telegram with our personal data: messages, geolocation, contacts, photos, and videos. Any platform is worthless without its users. The value of Telegram, with all its conveniences, would be zero if it weren't for us.


For now, almost any chat in Telegram is essentially a group chat, which Telegram employees can also read. And some of them still live in Russia. Therefore, it’s better to try to minimize all activity in Telegram or even delete it altogether. Do not choose convenience over safety.

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