Millions of people around the world, and many in South Africa, are downloading messaging app Telegram because of new privacy concerns around WhatsApp.
But as has been quickly pointed out, sometimes it’s better to stick to the devil that you know.
Apparently unbeknown to many recent switchers in South Africa, the seemingly innocent messaging app alternative has been used as a form of dark web used to buy and sell sex, drugs, and – thanks to SA’s lockdown prohibition – alcohol.
Since a crackdown on illicit online markets, Telegram has proven popular among those dealing in illegal goods for its ease of access, limited identity verifications, and end-to-end encryption of messages.
The recent addition of Telegram’s “People Nearby” feature has expanded the reach of such pitches, allowing users to find both contacts and groups, based on their location.
That is being used in South Africa to create neighbourhood-based sales or exchanges. And although uptake in South Africa is still slow, it’s already a fairly dark and sordid place.
Telegram says it designed the feature to help find “adventurous Telegram users in the area”, “arrange a last-minute date for Valentine’s Day”, and for those who’ve “scrambled for business cards at a beach party” – but a quick look at what’s on offer in South Africa suggests its users are looking for something slightly different.
In the Cape Town City Bowl, there are at least two groups purporting to sell drugs and offer escort services. Although to be fair the group unsubtly named D.R.U.G.S is overrun with bots desperate to get users to click on links to games – in itself a security threat – there was at least one publicly viewable conversation about the possible exchange of narcotics.
Privacy, in this case, appears to have been forgotten, with the user’s name and surname were openly visible.
The most popular group within five kilometres of the Cape Town City Bowl, “Sexychat”, has been blocked by Telegram “because it was used to spread pornographic content”, but the next in line, “Top Dollar Escort info and advertising”, hasn’t suffered the same fate yet.
This group is, unsurprisingly, primarily populated by boys or men seeking the services advertised in the group’s name. It contains pornographic material, direct solicitations of sex, and delivery of top-shelf liquor, all posted openly for others to read and respond to.
These trends are mirrored elsewhere in South Africa. Suburbs in northern Johannesburg feature groups like “randburg nasty”, “Gents2Gents”, and “Stoners Lounge”, while at least one group, “SHARE THE GOSPEL”, is attempting to swim against the tide of the more nefarious offerings.
The location-based groups appear at best to be a clumsy way to meet new people and talk about maybe purchasing illegal goods. But much of its awkwardness is likely down to South Africa’s only recent uptake in the app; most groups currently have just a few dozen users and almost no ongoing interactions. Given the popularity and subsequent scourge of the app in more established Telegram markets around the world, the nature and participation in these groups in South Africa may change as user adoption here increases.
That users are flocking to Telegram from WhatsApp, in many cases on ethical grounds, is also surprising, given how shady its background has been.
In 2018 the app became a haven for people sharing pirated movies and shows, as well as stolen login credentials; it had until recently been used as a messaging platform frequented by terrorists; and in just the past 12 months, bots on Telegram were used to create more than 100,000 fake nudes, fraudsters have used the app to steal payment details, and right wing users in the United States have flocked to the platform as mainstream social media suspended accounts.
Although any messaging app has the potential to harbour these types of users, many are recommending that Telegram users loyal to the platform for its apparently greater concern around security carefully check their privacy settings – and deactivate location sharing for all children using the app on their phones.
How to deactivate People Nearby on Telegram
The “Find People Nearby” feature can’t be switched off within the app, but users who want to avoid being found by their location should click “Contacts” > “Find People Nearby”.
If the top feature reads “Make Myself Visible”, other users will not be able to find you via your location and message you directly. If it reads “Stop Showing Me”, it means the feature is currently active – clicking this will deactivate it.
Groups Nearby, which are responsible for much of the nefarious activity on the app, however, will remain visible and accessible regardless of your individual visibility settings within the app. If you wish to remove Groups Nearby entirely from your or a minor’s phone, you can do so by restricting location access to the app in your phone’s system settings – and then ensuring that minors can’t change this back by activating parental controls in Android or iOS