What can Paris teach us about online privacy?

The relationships between privacy and social networks is an issue we think a lot about over here at The Watercooler. And generally, we err on the side of ‘I’d delete my Facebook if birthday notifications weren’t the best part of my year.’

Concern about online security is maybe the only thing we could possibly have in common with ISIS. In the wake of the Paris attacks, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s guide to its members to keep messages secure on almost every digital platform has been released to the public by the Combating Terrorism Center. For ISIS members, Twitter’s fine if you can avoid getting blocked; Facebook and its portfolio (DropBox, Instagram, WhatsApp) are all firm nos due to Facebook’s “bad reputation in the protection of privacy,” to quote the manual.

Instead of WhatsApp or regular old SMS, ISIS instead has turned to Telegram, an internet-based encrypted messaging service which, until the Paris attacks, refused to block users known to be engaging in terrorist plots. Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov, the Russian entrepreneur who once threw cash out a window to watch people fight for it in the street below, told Mike Butcher at TechCrunch Disrupt last September:

“Ultimately, the right to privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism. If you look at ISIS– yes, there’s a war going on in the Middle East…. ultimately, ISIS will always find a way to communicate within themselves. And if any means of communication turns out not to be secure for them, they’ll just switch to another one. So I don’t think we are actually taking part in these activities. I don’t think we should feel guilty about it. I still think we’re doing the right thing, protecting our users’ privacy.”

Since the attacks, Durov has released a statement saying that Telegram will block public channels used by ISIS (he said the fact that ISIS was using public channels rather than private messaging channels came as a surprise to his team). Private chat channels will remain unblocked for all users, Durov told The Washington Post.

As we move forward from the Paris attacks, we’re forced to face a lot of tough questions, including some about online privacy. Can we continue to rally to the banner of privacy, when scenes of wanton death and human misery like we saw in Paris are possible results? In today’s world, is it worth giving up a modicum of our own privacy in exchange for a slightly greater possibility of general security?

Answering these questions is above our pay grade here at LMTD, but we know one thing now for sure: even if it is the most secure messaging app, we’ll be deleting Telegram from our phones. We wouldn’t want to contribute, however indirectly, to any pedestrian injuries on the street below Pavel Durov’s office window.


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