Telegram is a popular encrypted messaging app that will allow users to cloak their telephone numbers to protect Hong Kong protesters against surveillance by Chinese authorities, according to a person with direct knowledge of the effort.
The update to Telegram, which plans to release within the next few days, will prevent protesters from discovering their identities in Chinese app’s large group chat.
Thousands of Hong Kong protesters took their signals from more than 100 groups on Telegram. The protesters found a report published earlier this month that Reuters used an encrypted app such as Telegram to quickly mobilize via multiple group chats, with little risk of police intrusion.
The groups are used to post everything from news of upcoming protests, with police hiding undercover police identities and tear gas canisters stained on access codes of buildings in Hong Kong that protesters can hide.
Demonstrators have become concerned that Chinese authorities may use the movement’s reliance on telegrams to monitor and arrest organizers. Telegram chat groups used to organize public protests are often accessible to anyone and participants use pseudonyms.
But according to a group of Hong Kong engineers posting their search on an online forum earlier this month, a feature in Telegram’s design may have allowed Chinese authorities to know the users’ true identities.
Telegram allows users to search for other users by uploading phone numbers. This function allows a new user to quickly know if his or her phone’s contact book is already using the app, the group said.
The protesters believe that Chinese security officials have taken advantage of the ceremony by uploading a large number of phone numbers.
The app automatically matches the phone number with the username in the group. Chinese authorities then only need to request the owners of phone numbers from the local telecommunications service to know the true identity of the users.
Telegram traced evidence that Chinese authorities may have uploaded numbers to identify the protesters, a person with direct knowledge of the situation said. But it is not clear whether Chinese authorities have successfully used this tactic to locate the protesters.
Government officials in Hong Kong did not respond to a request for comment.
The fix is working on Telegram which will allow users to disable matching by phone number. This option makes it easy for users to discover the privacy needs of their contacts and those who rely on the app to protect against state security agents.
Telegram hopes to help save Hong Kong protesters with the update. The source said that the widespread adoption of alternative security settings would make the app difficult to use for its more than 200 consumers, who rely on uploading phone contacts to identify friends and family members on the app , The source said.
The Telegram’s move came after the Hong Kong police arrested several key activists and three MPs on Friday. Around 900 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began three months ago.
Hong Kong, with protesters and officials in an impasse and facing a recession for the first time in a decade, has speculated that the city’s government could enact emergency legislation, giving it additional powers over detainees, censorship and curfews.
The government considered using “all laws” to curb violence, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who has become a lightning rod for protesters’ anger, said this week.