Privacy, which was the main focus of popular Peter Weir’s film, The Truman Show, is now at risk on the internet. What we search on Google, our location, our reviews, our purchases, and so on… can generate a frame of personal data that is enticing to third parties.
Signal, a new messaging app, has just arrived on the scene, introducing the idea that maybe Whatsapp and Telegram could be replaced by an app that prioritizes privacy and security.
The creator of this new app is Brian Acton, co-founder of Whatsapp, who, after a sudden exit from Facebook, where he worked, became an activist against large corporations’ misuse of personal data.
By the way, that the issue is actual, it suffices to remind that “Facebook-owned WhatsApp has been fined €225 million ($267 million) for breaking the European Union’s data privacy rules. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) announced the decision in an 89-page summary (PDF), noting that WhatsApp did not properly inform EU citizens how it handles their personal data, including how it shares that information with its parent company” (The Verge, 2.09.2021).
A Bit of History
Signal came into existence thanks to two programs from Whisper Systems, a company created in 2010 by cybersecurity specialist Moxie Marlinspike and robotics specialist Stuart Anderson. These programs were Redphone, an encrypted voice calling application, and Textsecure, an encrypted messaging platform.
In 2011 Twitter bought Whisper Systems, which was renamed Open Whisper Systems, signaling the transparency of an open-source available on Github both in its mobile (Android and iOS) and desktop versions. One of the advantages of having open-source is that it creates a community of programmers where anyone can offer their own input to improve the app. It’s worth mentioning: this technology is also used by Whatsapp.
In July 2014, this app was officially named Signal, and in 2015 it was promoted by Edward Snowden, a US technology consultant and former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency. As is well known, Snowden leaked to the press the largest illegal surveillance operation by the CIA of American citizens and the rest of the world, under the guise of fighting terrorism. He lives in exile in Russia, the only country that has accepted him, and a charge of high treason from the American government looms over him.
Thanks to his "treason," President Obama was forced to change the law that had made such surveillance possible without the knowledge of American citizens and with the collaboration of big Silicon Valley companies. A proper review of Permanent Record, Snowden's whistleblower book, can be read here.
As of February 2020, the European Commission and its staff recommend the use of Signal as an instant messaging app.
The Transition from Whatsapp to Signal
In January 2021, Whatsapp announced that it would change its policies, including transferring user data to Facebook, the central company. This caused many of its users to shift to Signal, seeking the privacy and security that Whatsapp was not providing them. Although the decision was rectified and postponed, this did not alter the enthusiasm of new Signal users.
This event coincided with a tweet that Elon Musk, considered one of the richest men in the world, who made a post on Twitter which encouraged his followers to make the switch to Signal with a simple "Use Signal."
Signal now has more than 50 million users.
What Makes Signal Unique?
1. It sends messages via the data network, which means that if one app-user sends messages to another app-user, there is no additional cost.
2. It can also be used to send messages to users who do not use the platform, which is clarified by a change in color if it is a standard SMS or a data network message.
3. In October 2016, Signal added the feature of temporary messages, which disappear after a certain period of time, and you can choose whether to delete them after five seconds, one day, or one week, from the time the recipient opens the message.
4. The typing indicator can be turned on or off so that the message recipient won’t know when you are typing.
5. Screen Lock: lock access to the app by requiring a passcode. This way no one else but you can access your chats.
6. Avoid taking screenshots. You can also prevent the keyboard installed on your phone from picking up what you write when you activate the "unknown keyboard" feature.
7. Message history has a limit, and each new message deletes an old message.
8. You are able to send messages to yourself, as if it were a notepad.
9. You can edit photos. You can also limit photo views for recipients, so that they might only open the image once before it’s erased.
10. You can create groups of up to 1,000 participants, without saving any kind of record of the groups they belong to, group names, etc.
11. The account is not linked to other devices, requiring you to enter a PIN code each time it is installed on another device.
12. A QR code is used to verify a contact.
13. Signal saves backups locally (on your cell phone).
14. It also allows you to send files of any size.
Are There Any Drawbacks to So Much Security?
In conclusion, we must mention that such security measures can prove to be a hindrance. For example, it allowed for riots and the assault on the US Capitol on January 6, in which U.S. security forces were overwhelmed by protesters who had secretly organized a plan using Signal. In turn, arrests were prevented, since it was unclear who the leaders were exactly.