The Mysterious Messenger

He is perhaps the most unorthodox of techpreneurs. Living a life fit for a Hollywood script, he baffles the world with his cyber security systems and bizarre antics. Pavel Durov keeps everyone guessing, but leaves no doubt about his genius.

Tech icons heading some of the world’s biggest companies tend to live in luxurious homes, give inspiring speeches and donate lots of cash to charity. Not Telegram messenger founder Pavel Durov, also known as “Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg”. The 31-year-old is an enigma, a rebel, a bad boy – and an expert at hiding in the shadows.

Durov actively defies the authorities, and even once had an armed police squad storm his apartment – which he does not own any more now that he is exiled from Russia. Since then, he has been leading a nomadic life, wandering into a different city or country once every few months. Still, he manages to run his multimillion-dollar enterprise. And who would have guessed that he studied linguistics at university?

Since its launch in 2013, Durov’s Telegram has attracted 62 million active users. In the US and several other countries, it ranks ahead of Facebook, WhatsApp, Line and Kik as the number one social networking app for iPhone users.

While it is popular among users as a fast and easy-to-use messaging tool, Telegram’s greatest value lies in its security features. In fact, the app reflects Durov’s expertise in building cyber security systems. The graduate from St Petersburg State University is so confident of his product that he has promised to pay US$200,000 to anyone who could crack his MTProto protocol, a huge amount compared to what Microsoft Windows is offering for eliminating critical bugs.

And why not? His first creation, Vkontakte (VK), once defeated Russian intelligence. Since going online, VK quickly became Russia’s most popular social network and a household name, earning him comparisons with Zuckerberg. However, during a period of political unrest in 2011, VK was seen as a threat to the Kremlin for housing pages of opposition activists. The Russian government demanded that VK close it down – after failed attempts to hack the system.

Durov, a supporter of free speech, refused. In defiance, he went on to publish scans of their demands and even tweeted a picture of a dog with its tongue hanging out to mock the authorities. This led to frequent police harassment, including an unwelcome visit by a Russian SWAT team. Durov then left Russia to take a break, coming back to discover that his company had been sold. He was then fired from his CEO position in 2014. With US$300 million in his pockets, he left Russia for good. And so began the story of Telegram, which is based in Germany.

“The number one reason for me to launch Telegram was to build a means of communication that can’t be accessed by the Russian security agencies,” he said.

Telegram’s security features clearly reflect that. Unlike other instant messaging apps, Telegram users can opt for special secret chats, in which messages self-destruct and leave no trace behind. The app even gained controversy for being the primary communication platform for ISIS terrorists.

And Durov sure is proud of it: “Since the day we started Telegram 18 months ago we haven’t disclosed a single byte of user data to third parties, including government officials.”

Durov could have been hailed as a hero, if not for his antics. He may be admired for courageously standing up for free speech, but more often than not, he makes headlines for the wrong reasons. In 2011, he folded cash into paper airplanes and threw them out of his office window. Some witnesses reported that Durov was laughing and filmed throughout the incident. Defying public criticism, he remarked, “More such actions are to follow.” In 2013, he was suspected of knocking down a traffic policeman with a car. Also, he is brazen when expressing his displeasure. When a Russian firm attempted to purchase VK, he replied with a photo of him brandishing his middle finger. He did the same when the Russian government requested user data from Ukraine.

One might wonder about Durov’s more intimate details, whether he has a partner, for example. But despite the media sensation, his personal life remains largely unknown. “I would rather not comment on my private life,” he once said to a Financial Times journalist before bidding goodbye.

It looks like the world will never know as much about Durov as it desires to. He is, after all, a master of hiding in the shadows, both in the virtual and physical world.

With streaks of teen-like mischief and a flair for the bizarre, he does not seem a positive example to aspiring techpreneurs, at least not in the eyes of headmasters or protective parents. But perhaps the one big thing we can learn from Durov’s life is that he embodies the popular slogan You Only Live Once (YOLO). His fearless approach to living and insistence on standing up to censorship and bullying deserve our recognition.

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