Telegram, the high-security messaging app, has shut down 78 Islamic State-related channels. Here's a look at what the app is and why terrorists are using it. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

 

An encrypted communications app called Telegram has been in the news a lot this week, amid fears that the Islamic State has adopted it as its preferred platform for messaging.

On Nov. 18, Telegram reportedly banned 78 ISIS-related channels, “disturbed” to learn how popular the app had become among extremists. Those extremists had used the app both to spread propaganda, according to an October report, and to crowdfund money for guns and rockets, according to Vocativ.

[Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine]

Telegram makes an obvious choice for both activities: In media interviews and on his Web site, the app’s founder — Pavel Durov, often called the “Zuckerberg of Russia” — has boasted that Telegram is technologically and ideologically unsurveillable. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, however, questions have begun to emerge about how trustworthy Telegram actually is.

Multiple cryptologists and security experts have claimed that Telegram is actually not all that secure: a flaw that may reflect the fact that Telegram wasn’t initially conceived as an encrypted messaging platform.

On top of that, while Telegram is typically described as a highly principled, Berlin-based nonprofit, that hasn’t always been the case: Up until about a year ago, Telegram was an opaque web of for-profit shell companies — mired in conflict and managed, in large part, from the United States.

“Pavel is really unpredictable,” said Axel Neff, the estranged co-founder and former chief information officer at the company. “His biggest drive has always been notoriety.”

[Islamist militants turn to less-governed social-media platform]

Neff makes an odd protagonist in a tale of international corporate intrigue. Raised in rural ski country south of Buffalo, N.Y., and schooled in engineering, Neff was essentially working in construction when Durov founded Russia’s largest social network, Vkontakte, in 2006. Neff’s a salt-of-the-earth guy — a Bills fan and the co-owner, with his mother, of a train-themed restaurant — who seems to have stumbled into Russian tycoon circles entirely by accident. (Neither Pavel nor Telegram returned the Post’s request for comment.)

In college, one of his high school buddies studied abroad in Russia, where he was fortuitously placed in a study group with Durov and a guy named Ilya Perekopsky. Neff befriended Perekopsky when he came to Buffalo for a summer to practice English; Perekopsky went on to help found VK. Before he knew it, a random 28-year-old who drove an old Toyota and lived in rural New York state was the assistant director of international operations at one of the world’s largest social networking companies.

Main Place Mall, where Digital Fortress' Buffalo office was located. (Reading Tom/Flickr) Main Place Mall, where Digital Fortress’ Buffalo office was located. (Reading Tom/Flickr)

Neff was pretty good at his job, according to court documents made public in 2014 that shed light on the business practices and dealings of Telegram — although he did depart, that same year, under sketchy circumstances. After joining VK in 2008, Neff helped develop the site in foreign markets and transition it away from vkontakte.com URL. By 2011, when the political situation in Russia was making business perilous for social networks and other Internet companies, Neff was good friends with both Durov and Perekopsky. In 2012, they and several other VK executives began discussing a new app; Neff began researching server space and renting a downtown Buffalo office.

At the time, Neff said, the concept for the company was simple: a series of messaging apps — of which Telegram would be the first — that relied not on cellphone carriers but on data networks.

The emphasis was never encryption, Neff said — but from the beginning, secrecy was key. Durov, a polarizing figure in Russia, had clashed repeatedly with the Kremlin over censorship and, in late 2011, received an unexplained visit from a Russian SWAT team. The new company would be called Digital Fortress, and an examination of court documents later made public suggest that Durov wanted to be as distanced as possible from the new venture. It would have “no connection to any other person or business,” Perekopsky promised by e-mail in 2013. Later that same year, Russian security forces would raid VK’s offices; Durov fled the country.


An excerpt from a civil complaint Durov filed against Neff, Perekopsky and others in April 2014.

To make that happen, they registered a network of shell companies around the world, the better to avoid taxes, contract with local data centers, and disguise the app’s true ownership. Publicly, Durov has also said this arrangement was intended to deter subpoenas and other requests from government.

There were variants of Digital Fortress in Panama and Belize, though St. Petersburg was home to most of its employees. Neff registered Digital Fortress LLC and Telegram LLC in the U.S., with a headquarters listed in downtown Buffalo. That’s also the address from which Digital Fortress/Telegram paid its bills, registered its trademarks, contracted its first PR firm, and ran its vast international network of servers and data centers. Digital Fortress’ first data center, in fact, was on the ground floor of its Buffalo office building; when I visited the facility in 2013, workers said the Russian company had already indicated they might need a whole lot more server space.

Where was Telegram actually based, though, and who actually owned it? By the time Digital Fortress launched the Telegram app in August 2013, the answers to those questions were becoming complicated.

For starters, Durov and other Telegram employees had repeatedly claimed their app was nonprofit, which wasn’t technically true. (“The Telegram team declared numerous times in its FAQs and public statements that Telegram was a non-profit,” Durov wrote to Neff in an email made public in court documents. “… The for-profit entity that we currently have, especially a U.S.-based one, raises questions among our audience.”)


A 2014 -email between Durov and Neff, made public in a court case a month later.

On top of that, a battle was brewing for custody over the app. In April 2013, a Kremlin-linked investment firm called United Capital Partners bought half of Vkontakte, where many of Telegram’s developers and executives also worked. Durov and UCP became locked in a battle for control of VK, in which Telegram served as a pawn of sorts. UCP believed Telegram belonged to VK, court documents show; Durov, who had begun divesting from VK, claimed that Telegram was his alone; Neff, meanwhile, owned the U.S.-based LLCs Telegram and Digital Fortress.

When Durov resigned from the board of VK in April 2014, both UCP and Durov sued for control of Telegram, a legal battle that wouldn’t be resolved until an out-of-court settlement in late November. During those seven months, Durov had no control over the Telegram app being sold in the Apple app Store: According to court documents, Neff still had the corporate password.


An excerpt from Durov’s April 2014 complaint.

It’s unclear what the terms of the settlement were, but it would appear that a certain amount of non-disclosure was among them; when talking to The Post, Neff declined to delve into details of his employment or the settlement. (In the New York case Durov alleged, among other things, that Neff had “betrayed” him and committed several criminal act by secretly selling Telegram’s U.S. division to UCP.)

Since then, Durov has cut ties with both Neff and Perekopsky, and moved the Telegram operation to Berlin. While news of the case, which was filed in New York, leaked to the Russian press, it received far less attention in the U.S., where — officially speaking, at least — Telegram has never existed.

“Why should I trust you?” Reads one question in Telegram’s current FAQ.

“Telegram is open,” the answer says. “Anyone can … see how everything works.”

***

There have been other suggestions, in recent days, that Telegram isn’t quite as trustworthy as it’s promised to be. On his blog, the prominent security researcher Thaddeus Grugq panned Telegram’s encryption method as “wonky” and “error prone.” Matthew Green, a cryptographer and professor at Johns Hopkins, has said — among more colorful things — that the app’s encryption methods are “really nonstandard.”

Meanwhile, there are questions about how Durov has handled the proliferation of extremists using his app. Less than two months before Telegram suspended 78 accounts linked to ISIS, Durov told a crowd at TechCrunch Disrupt that he thinks he and his employees “shouldn’t feel guilty” if ISIS uses their app; the “right for privacy,” he argued, is more important than fears about security or terrorism.

For his part, Neff is looking for a different kind of security: Since parting ways with Durov last year, he’s gotten married and settled down in the Buffalo suburbs. He and Perekopsky are working on a new project, called Blackmoon Financial, in partnership with a former investment banker. When Neff isn’t working on that, he’s running his family’s train-themed gastropub; it’s not far from his mother’s house in Buffalo ski country, where Telegram’s early URLs were registered for several months.

As for his time running with the world’s Russian Zuckerberg, Neff can only laugh: “I like to tell people I’m famous in Russia,” he said. “I’ve gotten some good bar jokes out of it.”

When asked about Telegram’s recent notoriety, however, Neff gets more serious. He can’t guess if, or how, Durov will root out ISIS on the app.

“Telegram was never developed to be a breeding ground for Islamic terror,” he said. “Pavel should be morally obligated to do something about this.”

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