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A Beginner’s Guide to Telegram, the High-Security Messaging Service Biting at the Heels of WhatsApp

Alyssa Bereznak

A Beginner’s Guide to Telegram, the High-Security Messaging Service Biting at the Heels of WhatsApp

GIF courtesy of TechCrunch

Telegram, a hot messaging service from Russia, is sneaking its way up the charts of free messaging apps, following the massively huge WhatsApp. This new app focuses on security, with completely private, safe and self-destructing messages.

At first glance, you might think it’s just a carbon copy of WhatsApp, whose 50-employee Cristal-sippin’ company was recently bought by Facebook in a $19 billion deal. Telegram has the same cutesy doodles in the background of your conversation; the same double checkmarks next to each message to show that it has been sent and received; and the ability to share locations, photos and documents. But what it lacks in unique design, it makes up for in its security measures.

Users have the option to start a new “Secret Chat,” a special type of conversation in which all devices involved exchange encryption keys. It’s meant to fend off anyone attempting to eavesdrop on a chat (it stops man-in-the-middle attacks). The main difference between Secret Chats and regular Telegram chats are that Secret Chats are not saved to the cloud.  

The security doesn’t stop there. For each chat, you can set a self-destructing time limit (à la Snapchat) to ensure that your communication — whether it be a sext, a shady business deal or some intensely confidential gossip about your boss — disappears within a few seconds, a few minutes, an hour, a day or a week.

The app was built by the Durov brothers, the men behind VKontakte, (aka VK), the Facebook of Russia. “The No. 1 reason for me to support and help launch Telegram was to build a means of communication that can’t be accessed by the Russian security agencies,” Pavel Durov told TechCrunch this week. The two even have a $200,000 bounty out for anyone who can crack the app’s security measures. So far, no one has. 

The importance that the Durov brothers are placing on security has resonated in other countries as well. As The Verge reports, the app began an upward climb in popularity earlier this month (even before the WhatsApp news was announced) and had been No. 1 in Spanish, Arabic and several Latin American app stores for several weeks prior. When WhatsApp went down for a few hours over the weekend, close to 5 million people joined Telegram, which is now the top free app in 63 countries. In the U.S. it’s holding the throne in the Social Networking category, looking down at well-established services like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Facebook and Kik. 

So maybe Facebook might be having buyer’s remorse? Or maybe all WhatsApp needs to do is pull a copycat trick or two from its sleeve as well.

As we watch the battle of the messaging apps unfold, here’s a quick tutorial on how to use Telegram

1. Download the app here for iOS or here for Android.

2. Open the app.

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3. Tap Start Messaging.

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4. Enter your phone number.

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5. As soon as you enter your number, you’ll receive a text with a code in it. Enter it, and you’ll be admitted to the next step, which is typing in your name and choosing a profile picture (say hi to me with bangs circa 2012).

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6. Telegram will then ask to access your contacts. This is the only real way you can invite people to use the app, so you have to agree. It’ll also ask if it can send you push notifications. Say yes, since this is a messaging app, and usually time is of the essence with texting (especially ephemeral texting!).

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7. I have only one other tech journalist friend in my contact list who is already on Telegram, so I’ll have to invite some others. To do that, tap the option to Invite Friends.

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8. From there, you can scroll through your contact list and choose whom you’d like to invite.

image9. Telegram will send your invitees a text with a link to download the app. Unfortunately, they must be either iOS or Android users.
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10. Once your friends are signed up, you can start your chat. You have a few options here. You can either start a regular conversation by tapping the name of whomever you want to message. Or, if you expect that your discussion will contain sensitive information (like unflattering photos), you should select New Secret Chat and choose whom you’d like to invite to your conversation.
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11. Once you invite the person to the chat, Telegram will helpfully detail what being “secret” entails. 

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12. You can ensure that no one is messing with your connection by cross-checking your encryption keys. All you do is tap on the person’s photo up at the top of your chat.

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13. A little info card will pop up at the bottom that says Encryption Key. Tap it.

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14. From there, you can see the Encryption Key up close. If it’s the same on your friend’s phone, your chat is, according to Telegram, 200 percent secure.

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15. To add a self-destructing time limit on your chat, go back to your main conversation page and tap the top of the screen. A menu will drop down and offer up three options: Call, Edit and Info.To delete texts, tap Edit. To set a self-destruct timer, tap Info.

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16. You’ll be given a menu of different times. Make your choice depending on how long you want the other person gazing at your naked photo or confidential government documents. Or whatever it is you mysterious kids are sending to each other these days.

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17. A little gray message will show up in your chat to confirm that the expiration date has been set. It works only for the messages that appear after you set the timer, not the ones before. So unfortunately Daniel will forever have that horrible photo of me in a beauty mask for bribing purposes, since I sent it before I set the self-destruct clock. If you set the timer to just one or five seconds, you can watch the messages disappear before your very own eyes.

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Those are the most important security features of the app! Considering all the Apple security breaches and continuing stream of NSA eavesdropping, you can understand why it’s picking up so quickly. 

Now go be mysterious with your bad selves.

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