Written by Rachel Tay

What happened?

Telegram, a popular encrypted messaging app, will introduce an update to allow users to cloak their telephone numbers in order to protect Hong Kong protesters, against surveillance from the Chinese government. This move follows the arrest of prominent activists and lawmakers in Hong Kong who have been active in demonstrations against the extradition bill which allows individuals, including foreigners, to be handed over to mainland China for trials. 

Telegram has a function that automatically matches a user’s phone number to their Telegram handle. Protesters are concerned that the Chinese or Hong Kong security officials may have been uploading large quantities of phone numbers to exploit this function. The function could automatically identify a user’s true identity in private chat groups that express dissenting opinions, opening up opportunities for the Chinese authorities to monitor and crack down on protesters. However, it remains unclear whether the Chinese or Hong Kong authorities have successfully identified protesters through this exploit. 

As of now, Telegram is working to release an update to allow the disabling of phone number matching. This presents a problem of balance between allowing users to find their contacts easily and protecting users from the surveillance of state security officials. 


Why should you care?

The implementation of the update for the security setting would affect over 200 million consumers of Telegram (possibly including you), who may rely on uploading contacts to identify friends and family. What are the larger implications of such a security setting introduced with the ability to influence the current political scene in Hong Kong? How would the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) respond to this move by Telegram? Would the Chinese or Hong Kong security officials find ways to circumvent or even exploit this new Telegram setting for political purposes? The interaction between the technological and political space leaves questions for us to consider, as societies become increasingly connected.

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