Messaging app including Telegram recently announced that they will deny law enforcement requests for user data in Hong Kong while studying ramifications of a national security law enacted last week.
While the news may bring temporary relief to thousands of Hong Kongers who were active users of Telegram, the change in heart seems to have evoked a cheeky response from fellow messaging app Signal.
The move comes in the wake of China implementing the National Security Law in Hong Kong, prohibiting what Beijing views as secessionist, subversive or terrorist activities, or as foreign intervention in the territory's internal affairs. The legislation criminalizes some pro-democracy slogans like the widely used "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time," which the Hong Kong government says has separatist connotations.
Reacting to the law, Telegram, owned by Russian entrepreneur and founder of the Russian social media site VK, decided to temporarily refuse data requests by Hong Kong authorities until an international consensus regarding the law has been reached.
Reacting to Telegram's announcement on Twitter, Signal, an not-for-profit and pro-privacy app developed by the Signal Foundation and Signal Messenger LLC, took a dig at Telegram.
"We'd announce that we're stopping too, but we never started turning over user data to HK police. Also, we don't have user data to turn over," Signal tweeted.
We'd announce that we're stopping too, but we never started turning over user data to HK police. Also, we don't have user data to turn over. https://t.co/BBb8BYmW61— Signal (@signalapp) July 6, 2020
The tweet went viral with over 12,000 likes on Twitter and led to a discussion about data privacy and data retention. Journalist Tom Gurdy whose Hong Kong Free Press article was quoted by Signal clarified in a comment that Telegram had never shared user data with Hong Kong Police. Several users, however, pointed out that the fact that Signal did not store any user data in the first place made might make it a more reliable platform.
That’s great but how about stop demanding phone numbers so you truly “don’t have user data to turn over” at any point?— Martin Vigo (@martin_vigo) July 6, 2020
Yet others pointed out that though Signal did not store user data, it collected users' phone numbers.
The debate about data privacy has rocked Hong Kong, where protesters are known to use encrypted apps like Telegram to mobilize swiftly through multiple group chats, with less risk of police infiltration, an in-depth report published by Reuters. The groups are used to post everything from news on upcoming protests to tips on dousing tear gas canisters fired by the police to the identities of suspected undercover police and the access codes to buildings in Hong Kong where protesters can hide.
Protesters have previously have expressed concern that authorities could use the movement’s reliance on Telegram to monitor and arrest organizers. Telegram chat groups used to organize public protests are often accessible to anyone and participants use pseudonyms.
In August last year, Reuters had reported that that Telegram had allowed users to cloak their telephone numbers to safeguard Hong Kong protesters against monitoring by authorities.
Not just Telegram, other social media and messaging apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Google and Twitter have also said they will deny data sharing requests from Hong kong authorities until further international consensus on the new national security policies.
(With inputs from AP and Reuters)