Telegram CEO calls out rival Signal, claiming it has ties to US government

Drama between two of the leading secure messaging services

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov issued a scathing criticism of Signal, alleging the messaging service is not secure and has ties to US intelligence agencies.

There is no evidence Signal is hooked into the US government as described by Durov.

Durov made his remarks on his Telegram channel on Wednesday, pushing a variety of points against the rival messenger app, including alleging it has ongoing ties to the US government, casting doubt over its end-to-end encryption, and claiming a lack of software transparency, as well as describing Signal as "an allegedly "secure" messaging app.

The comments seem to have been inspired by a City Journal report that detailed the origins of Signal, which was kickstarted by a $3 million grant from the US government's Open Technology Fund. The article suggests the possibility that Signal and US intelligence are closely linked, mentioning that the current chair of the Signal Foundation is Katherine Maher, who from 2010 to 2011 worked for the National Democratic Institute, a US-backed NGO.

The report says that Maher was an "agent of regime change" during the Arab Spring, and communicated with dissidents in the Middle East and North Africa. Maher has held other noteworthy positions, including serving as CCO at Wikimedia in 2014 to 2016 and then CEO from 2016 to 2021; held a seat in the Foreign Affairs Policy Board from 2022 to last January; and occupied dual roles as CEO and President of National Public Radio (NPR) just last March. The report also critiqued Maher's commitment to a free and open internet, citing this tweet.

Durov appears to have used the City Journal article as a jumping off point for his criticisms. "The US government spent $3 million to build Signal's encryption, and today the exact same encryption is implemented in WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google Messages and even Skype," the Telegram leader said. "It looks almost as if big tech in the US is not allowed to build its own encryption protocols that would be independent of government interference."

The CEO also claims that users' Signal messages have popped up in court cases or in the media, and implies that this has happened because the app's encryption isn't completely secure. However, Durov cites "important people I've spoken to" and doesn't mention any specific instance of this happening.

It's hard to say, but Durov may be making a reference to Sam Bankman-Fried, whose Signal messages were a key part of the trial that resulted in the ex-CEO being convicted. However, it's more likely that the messages' recipients, who included two star witnesses, gave them to federal prosecutors.

The Register could not find public reports of Signal messages leaking due to faulty encryption. We also have reached out to the company and will update accordingly.

Durov's also claims that Signal doesn't permit users to reproduce the iOS version of the app, something that would prove that the version of Signal that users download in the App Store is the same one a user can build using the open source code.

Similarly, Durov lampooned WhatsApp for not publishing its source code, saying "all their talk about "privacy" is an even more obvious circus trick."

While it is true that iOS users can't make a reproducible build of Signal, that's not for a lack of trying. "For various Apple-specific reasons this is shockingly hard to do on iOS," said Johns Hopkins professor Matthew Green on X. "Mostly because apps are encrypted. (Apple should fix this.)"

DRM encryption also complicates build reproduction for Telegram's iOS app, which Green points out is only possible on older iPhones that have been jailbroken, and can only result in a partial verification since some files are still encrypted. By contrast, reproduction is possible on Android, which doesn't encrypt apps like iOS does.

Durvo's statements come just a couple of months after he raised the possibility of Telegram going public with an initial public offering (IPO), giving him and his company a key financial incentive to criticize rival services, even if the accusations are a little out there.

Again, we've reached out for comment from Telegram and Signal, which haven't yet replied. ®

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