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'Make your username obscure': Telegram chat groups circulating obscene material re-emerge

'Make your username obscure': Telegram chat groups circulating obscene material re-emerge

The icon of the popular messaging app Telegram on a smart phone screen. (Photo: AFP/Yuri KADOBNOV)

SINGAPORE: "Don't show your face in your display picture," says one message. Similar ones include: "Change your username to something very obscure" and "Make sure your online identity is different from your real-life persona". 

A 7,000-member strong Telegram chat group distributing obscene content is replete with messages like these, all in the name of avoiding detection.

"What we are doing is wrong already (sic), so we must do it smartly (sic) in order to not get caught," one user cautioned. 

This and other related group chats on Telegram, similar to the defunct SG Nasi Lemak, caught the attention of 21-year-old Nisha Rai, a political science undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. 

Ms Rai and 11 others, including polytechnic students, university undergraduates and working adults, have made it their mission to infiltrate these chat groups to try and shut them down. 

They started late last month and have found nearly 60 such chat  groups circulating obscene material of women in Singapore. These include videos of young women performing sex acts, in various stages of undress, upskirt photos, and hidden camera footage of women in toilets and changing rooms.

Ms Rai added that five of these group chats feature mainly content of local victims. She pointed out that their location could be established by visual clues. For example, upskirt photos that were clearly taken on the MRT, or the inclusion of victims' Instagram accounts alongside illicit material.

One of these chat groups is even called SG Nasi Lemak Official.

According to Ms Rai, the size of each group ranges from 500 to more than 7,000 members. The most active ones are updated daily. 

Police have confirmed a report has been made and investigations are ongoing. 

In October 2019, four men were arrested for their involvement in SG Nasi Lemak, a Telegram group that started in 2018, and had 44,000 members at its peak. 

READ: Administrator of sex-themed SG Nasi Lemak Telegram chat group gets jail and fine, had 8,000 obscene images

Last month, one of the administrators, 39-year-old Liong Tianwei, was jailed for nine weeks and fined S$26,000. Two others were sentenced to probation for distributing obscene material, while the case of another administrator is pending. In 2019, a CNA investigation discovered 13 other similar chat groups. 

READ: Leaked sex tapes and child porn - A look into 13 illicit Telegram chat groups

BOTS AND CRYPTOCURRENCY

Administrators are going to great lengths to evade detection – such as changing the names of the group chats frequently. They are also using technology to hide their tracks. 

"There are a few bots that these groups use. One tracks the changing of a person's usernames. There is another bot … which you can use to forward pictures and your username is hidden – so it states that it's sent from a bot, and not the individual itself," said Ms Rai. 

She has also seen advertisements for groups that tout themselves as more private and exclusive, requiring users to pay in cryptocurrency in exchange for access. 

These advertisements, seen by CNA, include a list of dos and don’ts. Users were told to deny that they are part of the group. They must also not disclose what’s being shared. 

"They are very smart in terms of how they think of using specific ways and measures to hide their identities to the best of their abilities," Ms Rai added. 

But lawyer Lionel Tan, a partner at Rajah & Tann, said these methods are not foolproof. 

"I'm sure criminals will do their best to hide from the police … But they may not put in place all the necessary measures to completely isolate themselves and keep themselves anonymous," he said.

"They can also make mistakes, and that's where law enforcement agencies are able to track them down."

VICTIM SUPPORT 

Aside from hunting down the groups, Ms Rai has also been reaching out to victims to provide them with emotional support. Around 30 have been contacted.

"I felt really upset for the victims because some of them didn't even know that their pictures are up," said Ms Rai. "Others had hopes that justice had been served once, so this wouldn't happen again." 

She also hopes authorities can consider establishing a support base for these victims, catering to specific needs. "For example, for young victims like those in secondary schools – their concerns are being ostracised by their friends or being kicked out (of) schools. For (older women), it may be employment opportunities," she added. 

Last month, the government announced that new laws could be drawn up to tackle the dissemination of voyeuristic and intimate images online without consent. 

The Ministry of Communications and Information also said that it is working to form a new Singapore Together Alliance for Action (AfA) on tackling online harms, especially those targeted at women and girls. 

Source: CNA/ic(ac)

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