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A privacy-compliant approach to stopping hate crime on Telegram

Extremist groups are using messenger service Telegram to openly plan and announce crimes. With the Telegram operators being unreactive, German authorities are now taking things in their own hands. But what measures can they take? Can GDPR be disregarded in certain situations, and if yes, who decides if a situation is serious enough to overthrow privacy principles? Let’s take a closer look.


What’s the situation?

Since the pandemic hit, the Russian messenger service Telegram (500 million users worldwide) has regularly been all over the news. Unfortunately, not for being the allegedly more privacy-compliant alternative to WhatsApp, but rather for being a prominent channel for radical groups. COVID deniers or anti-vaxxers use “Terrorgram” to instigate, exchange extreme ideologies, spread fake news, organise protests against the corona measures and – most recently – openly plan and announce crimes against scientists and politicians.

A dangerous trend that polarizes and divides people in times where society should stick together more than ever. But German authorities have now seen enough. With the Telegram operators being unreactive and not having the necessary measures in place to act, politicians are now taking things into their own hands.

What measures can be taken?

The Federal Office of Justice has already asked Telegram several times to act upon their duties resulting from the German Network Enforcement Act; a law aiming to fight hate crime, criminally punishable fake news and other unlawful content on social networks more effectively. However, Telegram never answered, which might be because it is unknown if the responsible persons are really located in Dubai. Plus: The Network Enforcement Act is highly criticised, as it lays the judgement of whether certain content is punishable or not into the hands of the platforms and not the law. But is there really an alternative?

A privacy-compliant solution:

To effectively proceed against the instigators active on Telegram, two points are crucial:

  1. Radical users must be identifiable in a privacy-compliant way
  2. Judgement whether users’ behaviour is radical needs to shift away from the platforms

Therefore, a suitable solution could be the possibility to report radical behaviour to the authorities who would be able to set up so-called login traps. If the allegations proved to be true, with a login trap the police would be able to track the IP address of suspects once they log back into Telegram. With this information, they could get more specific information about who the user is from their respective telecommunications operator.

At the moment, this might be the most suitable and data minimising way to fight against the dangerous proclamation of fake news or violence on Telegram, without violating the principles of GDPR or encrypted communication. Of course, such topics should be treated on an international level; but looking at the increasing number of protests against COVID measures, or proclamations of hate crime, this is an important first step on the national level.

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About the author

Ren Watson

As a results-focussed analyst, Ren has worked in many industries including finance, charity and start-ups and became interested in data protection as a focus over the last decade. Using her analyst skills alongside her data protection expertise, she has consulted with charity, media and energy companies to understand their data protection requirements and has provided guidance and support for implementation of multiple privacy programmes. Today, she provides multi-functional support and awareness within DataGuard and to clients to promote privacy beyond compliance.

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