Telegram points to China after massive cyberattack in midst of anti-extradition protest

Thousands of protesters surround the LegCo complex in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019. Photo: Stuart White for Coconuts Media.
Thousands of protesters surround the LegCo complex in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019. Photo: Stuart White for Coconuts Media.

Encrypted messaging service Telegram suffered a major cyberattack that appeared to originate from China, the company’s CEO said Thursday, linking it to yesterday’s massive demonstration in Hong Kong.

Many protesters in the city have used Telegram to evade electronic surveillance and coordinate their demonstrations against a controversial Beijing-backed plan that would allow extraditions to mainland China.

Demonstrations descended into violence Wednesday as police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who had occupied parts of Admiralty and tried to storm the Legislative Council.

Telegram announced late Wednesday that it was suffering a “powerful” Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, which involves a hacker overwhelming a target’s servers by making a massive number of junk requests.

It warned users in many regions may face connection issues.

Pavel Durov, Telegram’s CEO, said the junk requests came mostly from China.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov. Photo via Instagram.
Telegram CEO Pavel Durov. Photo via Instagram.

“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),” he tweeted.

“This case was not an exception.”

Telegram later announced on Twitter that its service had stabilized. It also posted a series of tweets explaining the nature of the attack.

“Imagine that an army of lemmings just jumped the queue at McDonald’s in front of you — and each is ordering a whopper,” it said, referring to the flagship product of Burger King.

“The server is busy telling the whopper lemmings they came to the wrong place -– but there are so many of them that the server can’t even see you to try and take your order.”

China’s foreign ministry and cyberspace administration did not immediately respond to AFP’s requests for comment.

Telegram allows users to exchange encrypted text messages, photos and videos, and also create “channels” for as many as 200,000 people. It also supports encrypted voice calls. It announced last year that it had crossed 200 million monthly active users.

Encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp are preferred around the world by a wide variety of people trying to avoid surveillance by authorities — from Islamic State jihadists and drug dealers, to human rights activists and journalists.

Governments in recent years have devoted significant resources to breaching the security features of these apps, according to tech firms and researchers.

Hong Kong is not behind China’s Great Firewall, which heavily restricts internet access in the mainland — where Telegram is blocked.

The city’s special status under its handover agreement allows freedoms unseen in mainland China, but many fear they are under threat as Beijing exerts increasing influence on Hong Kong.

The current protests were sparked by fears that the proposed law would allow extraditions to China and leave people exposed to the mainland’s politicized and opaque justice system.

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