Telegram’s founder says China was behind a massive hacking attack on the encrypted-messaging app that is being used by Hong Kong demonstrators to organise protests against the territory’s planned extradition bill.
Wednesday’s protests erupted into violence, with 72 people injured as police used pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas. But while there was chaos on the streets, protesters have relied on apps such as Telegram to disseminate tactics and ensure smooth delivery of supplies like masks, head gear, cling film and water.
Pavel Durov, founder of Telegram, said on Thursday that the IP addresses of those flooding the servers with traffic to disrupt service — a so-called distributed denial-of-service — came mostly from China. Users reported difficulty using the service for several hours during the demonstration and violence on Wednesday.
“Historically, all state actor-sized DDoS (200-400 Gb/s of junk) we experienced coincided in time with protests in Hong Kong (coordinated on @telegram). This case was not an exception,” Mr Durov tweeted.
On Tuesday Hong Kong police arrested a 22-year-old man, subsequently released on bail, on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a “public nuisance crime”.
The man was the administrator of a Telegram group with more than 20,000 users that discusses tactics and how to deal with police using tear gas and pepper spray. A police media officer confirmed that the man had been linked to a Telegram group that had been used to organise protests.
China’s great firewall means many western apps do not work in the country, including Facebook, Google search and WhatsApp, but Hong Kong — under the “one country, two systems” that underpins its constitution — does not ban any apps.
Messaging apps Telegram, Signal and FireChat were all trending as the most popular downloads in the Hong Kong app store on Wednesday, in addition to two local Hong Kong internet forums, LIHKG and HKGolden.
Lokman Tsui, a scholar and activist at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Telegram previously came to the government’s attention in 2012 when the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme ran a mock online referendum to see who would win a popular vote to become leader of the territory — Hong Kong’s chief executive is effectively selected by Beijing.
The online referendum, he said, “was being DDoSed like hell”.
Mr Tsui added: “It’s very suspicious that it is happening at this time too and you wonder who benefits from this right now. We’re all using these apps to keep in touch with each other and try to figure out what’s going on. Hong Kong people don’t really use Twitter for that, they use Telegram for that, they use the forums for that.”
Opposition to the proposed extradition bill has united a broad swath of Hong Kong’s population — about 1m, or nearly a seventh of whom marched last Sunday to protest against the bill. Lawyers and business organisations have voiced their concerns as well as foreign governments.
Hong Kong’s government says the proposed law, which will allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for the first time, is needed to fill a legal loophole allowing Hong Kong to be potentially used as a haven for criminal fugitives. But opponents fear it will allow China to extradite political opponents or others from the city on potentially trumped-up charges.