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How criminals are tracked down on Telegram

by Sebastiaan Bosman News 18 Feb 2021

Our OSINT researcher Rosa Jong was invited to the NOS for a special about Telegram. The Dutch national broadcast channel created a special about the use of messenger app Telegram in the criminal underworld. What information is shared in the chat groups? And are the users truly anonymous? Rosa explains what she discovered.

Click the video to watch the full NOS Story special. It is in Dutch, but auto-translated English subtitles are available in the YouTube player. 

Seemingly anonymous

Telegram is used much like Whatsapp is: to chat with a single contact, or in a public group. But Telegram gathers less user data, and offers the option to hide your telephone number and select a random user name. Those features make the app popular among criminals and threat actors, whose ‘business’ runs better with a higher level of anonymity.

"You do see that people in groups for illegal merchandise are more conscious about their identity," Rosa explains. They make use of the feature to hide their phone numbers and don't use their real (account) names. 

However, complete anonymity on the internet doesn't exist. "There is always some sort of trace left behind," Rosa concludes. 

Hard to track, hard to catch

The information shared in Telegram is encrypted and only accessible to people in the chat. There is even a feature to completely delete messages after a certain time. 

That makes it harder for law enforcement to track down illegal activity and the people behind it. What's more, there are strict privacy laws to adhere by, meaning the police can't simply bait people into something illegal. 

THE OSINT PUZZLE

So how does Rosa navigate this maze to track down people on Telegram? She gathers small pieces of publicly available information called Open Source INTelligence (OSINT). Alone, these snippets might not say much, but one piece of the puzzle might contain a clue to the next. If you know where to look, there is more to be found than you might think. 

In the video, Rosa talks us through the process of how she was able to identify a Telegram user in a chat used for dealing weapons. Though she initially only saw half a photo and three numbers in their user name, it eventually lead to a positive ID via their Minecraft  and Instagram account. 

 

Are you interested to see how External Threat Intelligence can help you reduce threats to your organisation? Read our ETI page here

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