Social media law specialist and founder of The Digital Law Company, Emma Sadleir, has issued a warning regarding Telegram’s “Groups Nearby” feature.
The ultimatum resulted in a backlash against WhatsApp on social media, with many people looking for alternatives to the popular instant messaging app.
While messages between people on WhatsApp remain end-to-end encrypted and can’t be read by Facebook, many remain concerned over the amount of personally-identifying data the social networking giant is gathering through WhatsApp.
As a result of the ultimatum, WhatsApp users have been flocking to alternative platforms such as Telegram and Signal.
However, Sadleir has warned that parents may want to take care when allowing their children to install and use Telegram.
URGENT URGENT!!! If your child has downloaded Telegram please urgently make sure the location is turned off and that they cannot turn it back on. There is a ‘People Nearby’ feature which allows you to see nearby groups (without joining) with the most horrific pornography etc. 1/2
— Emma Sadleir (@EmmaSadleir) January 12, 2021
Groups Nearby and People Nearby – location-based connection on Telegram
In an interview on 702 and CapeTalk, Sadleir said that she looked into Telegram’s “Groups Nearby” feature after receiving an email from a concerned parent.
As an example, Sadleir pointed out one of the groups in her area which contained disturbing pornographic images.
“I picked up ‘Sluts of Randburg’ and all these groups where there is the most—and I must say I’m hardy because I’ve seen it all—the most horrific, affecting pornography. You can see it without even joining the groups,” said Sadleir.
Sadleir said that parents who are concerned about their children stumbling across this feature should disable Telegram’s access to their phones’ location services.
However, she also warned that there is nothing stopping children from just turning these location permissions back on.
Vulnerability in Telegram’s “People Nearby”
Earlier this year Ars Technica reported that independent security researcher Ahmed Hassan discovered a vulnerability in Telegram’s “People Nearby” feature that makes it easy for a hacker to find the precise location of other Telegram users who have the feature enabled.
The attack exploits the fact that Telegram on Android reports your distance from other nearby users who have enabled People Nearby.
An attacker can spoof their location and get three different distance readings to another user, then triangulate their exact location.
Even if they can’t spoof their location, they can simply walk or drive around an area to get the distance readings and use those.
Ars noted that fixing the vulnerability is technically easy. However, Telegram has told Hassan that it won’t be fixing the issue and that it isn’t covered by its bug bounty programme.
“Users in the People Nearby section intentionally share their location, and this feature is disabled by default. It’s expected that determining the exact location is possible under certain conditions,” Telegram stated.
Easy to find inappropriate groups on Telegram
It should also be noted that blocking Telegram from using location services won’t prevent children from finding inappropriate groups through Telegram’s search function.
The group Sadleir referred to was not discoverable via search at the time of publication, but many other groups that are not suitable for children are.
Telegram does not offer any age restriction features and it’s had a complicated relationship with pornography on its platform.
The company’s terms of service do not outright ban pornography from its platform, but it does allow users to report pornography and according to reports, Telegram has cracked down on such content.
A Change.org petition from three years ago asked Telegram to allow channels that are marked 18+ specifically for pornography. This feature was not implemented.
Despite the crackdown, pornographic material is still available in public groups on Telegram.
It’s also worth noting that Telegram has no minimum age except in the EU and UK.
Telegram’s current terms of service are short and simple:
- Use our service to send spam or scam users.
- Promote violence on publicly viewable Telegram channels, bots, etc.
- Post illegal pornographic content on publicly viewable Telegram channels, bots, etc.
We reserve the right to update these Terms of Service later.
Citizens of EU countries and the United Kingdom must be at least 16 years old to sign up.