Pavel Durov’s Telegram the Latest Move in the Race Against Surveilance

By David Knight |

By Silicon Allee Editor-in-Chief David Knight at TechCrunch Disrupt Europe

At a time when many in Europe are still reacting with outrage to the liberties taken – some would say quite literally – by Washington’s surveillance and intelligence-gathering excesses, it’s worth taking a step back and seeing the wider picture. For example, surely the very public anger is itself a sign that our freedom of speech is intact, certainly when compared to somewhere like Russia.

Moscow doesn’t appear to have been particularly concerned about such matters in recent years – a strange irony, then, that the world’s largest country has ended up being the saviour of the person whose actions unleashed this latest spying storm.

But can people really talk freely in Russia? Pavel Durov, one of the creators of the ‘Russian Facebook’, VK, made a surprise appearance at TechCrunch Disrupt on Monday to talk about his latest project, the non-profit Telegram. It’s a messaging app with a focus on security, and as such incorporates end-to-end encryption and even self-destructing messages.

And Durov – no stranger to finding himself out of favour with the Russian authorities – is hoping it will enable people to communicate more securely than they do now. Speaking on stage at the conference at Arena Berlin, he said that the advantage of such encryption is that the keys are created on the devices themselves, thus they don’t have anything to show to the authorities.

“As a result, the server doesn’t know what is the content of the messages,” he said. He did, however, admit that Telegram is in essence just one move in an ongoing race between protecting the privacy of communications and those who wish to access them.

But by making Telegram open source, he hopes the former can stay on top: “There are millions of us, IT entrepreneurs, engineers, security experts, that could provide solutions. I’m a strong believer in open source; it leverages the power of the community and I think we are much more powerful [than them].”

Durov founded VK as VKontakte in 2006 together with his older brother Nikolai, who is also involved with Telegram. The younger Durov saw his home and the VK offices searched over a traffic incident which he denied having any involvement with (he has subsequently been cleared of any wrongdoing).

And there, perhaps, lies some of the motivation for creating Telegram. According to TechCrunch, it is based on the MTProto custom data protocol built by Nikolai, who is a mathematician as well as a programmer. Secret chats use end-to-end encryption and are not stored in the cloud, so can only be read on the originating device.

Speaking at Disrupt, Durov was also very critical of the US over the PRISM and NSA scandal – so much so that he has offered a job to Edward Snowden, the original source of the leaks and who is now holed up in Russia. Calling him a “brilliant guy,” he said, with his tongue apparently in cheek , that the Telegram team “could certainly use a security expert and an English speaker to promote our site and build better security for our users.” As of yet, there has been no answer to the offer.

Ultimately, however, Durov has lofty goals for Telegram. “I hope that Telegram will inspire engineers all over the world to encrypt data in a more secure way,” he added. “I think it would be a good way to promote end to end encrpytions and privacy, and of course I hope that some people will find this product useful and feel more safe with it.”

Perhaps he can include himself among that number.