Signal (Updated 10/12/22)

A few years ago, and not necessarily out of the blue, I became increasingly more aware of how advertisers track us online, how companies use and sell our personal data, and how governments make use of this information as well. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I kinda went off the deep end with it and quickly approached tinfoil hat territory. I’ve since been able to reel it back quite a bit, but there are still quite a few things that stuck with me that I continue to practice and make use of today.

With that said, I should admit that I am far from being an expert really on any topic, and when it comes to privacy and security, one absolutely should do their own research to see if what I do, use, or recommend is even legitimate (though all I’m practicing/preaching are just pretty good general-use actions that would behoove anyone to consider or implement for themselves).

Now, I don’t want to get too into the Edward Snowden revelations, but let’s briefly touch on what he leaked: The U.S. government actively spies on us, and it does so with the help of most-if-not-all telecom companies and, to a potentially lesser degree, hardware and software manufacturers.

There are plenty of arguments both for and against Snowden’s whistleblowing, and for and against the government’s actions, and I’m not here to tell you which side of any argument you should be on (Ed’s a hero and should be treated as such and the government is bad and evil), but regardless of where you land, Ed’s widely-used and most quotable quote should ring at least a little true for you and/or yours:

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

— Edward Snowden, from basically any interview he’s ever done, or even his memoir, Permanent Record, available now wherever you get your books.

I agree fully with his sentiment here, but to peel that back just a few more words to where I said “true for you and/or yours,” the “yours” part is where I really want to draw focus. You might not personally have any reason to hide anything from anyone or any body (government, corporation, advertisers), but that doesn’t mean that the people you interact with (friends, loved ones, co-workers, dealers, bookies) don’t. Once you care about and take actions to protect your own privacy, however, you inadvertently start to care about and take actions to protect the privacy of others. It’s not a bad cycle to be in, and it’s almost never been easier, which is why I use and recommend Signal.

If you’re an iPhone user who only ever texts other iPhone users, you likely do not have to give privacy too much of a thought. Apple has its own messaging platform built into its devices called iMessage. iMessage is end-to-end (e2e) encrypted when texting other iPhone/iPad/Mac users (it’s why you have blue messaging bubbles with those folks). The encrypting of a message end-to-end means that, when you send or receive a text from someone via blue-bubble iMessage, the only two people who can (theoretically) read it are the sender and its recipient. When texting a non-Apple user, iMessage sends a normal, non-encrypted, government-readable text (green bubble). For some, wanting to avoid seeing this green color alone is what keeps them devoted to the Apple ecosystem. Outside of the general device lock-in that this can create (meaning someone only buys a new iPhone every year or three because it’s what they know/like), it’s also slightly hostile toward non-Apple users. For a company that claims it’s as privacy-focused as it is — CEO Tim Cook even stated that “Privacy is a fundamental human right.”1 — it’s done little to remedy this lack of privacy for non-Apple users.

Enter Signal. Signal is a messaging app not unlike iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or countless others, but what makes Signal special is that it e2e encrypts its messages by default. In fact, you can’t disable it. This means that, similar to iMessage, the only people who can read the messages sent between Signal users are the senders and recipients. The app has a few other niceties built-in, too — e2e encrypted voice and video calls, stickers packs, and reactions — but the best part, in my opinion, is that Signal is multi-platform. If you have an iPad, an Android phone, a Mac at home, and a Windows PC at work, and Signal is installed on each device, your messages will conveniently be synced across all platforms.

While this is the best part for me, an iPad user with an Android phone, for others, it might be the price: Free. There’s nothing to sign-up for either, because Signal uses your existing cell or VoIP (Google Voice, MySudo, etc…) number to log you onto its servers for easy breezy beautiful e2e encrypted messaging.

This really should be a no-brainer for Android phone users for a couple of reasons:

  1. Between Google, the carriers (I’m lookin at you, Verizon), the hardware manufacturers (I’m looking at you, Samsung), and various social platform messaging apps (Facebook, WhatsApp [owned by Facebook], others), there are like 30 different apps for texting someone, but if they offer e2e encryption at all, it’s not on by default.
  2. Because the platform works the way that it does, an Android user can set Signal as their default messaging app for all their general texting needs and, if one texts another Signal user (regardless of the device that person uses), the message is e2e encrypted without having to do anything else.

(That said, messages sent to or received by non-Signal users remain normal, non-encrypted, government-readable texts [think green bubbles from iMessage]. A conundrum perhaps, but not if more people start using Signal, whatever their device.)

Since iPhone users cannot currently set a different messaging app to be the default, it means iPhoners will have to use different apps for different sets of people. This might be a slight nuisance for them, but it’s one that comes with myriad benefits for others.

NOPE. (UPDATED: 10/12/2022)

The last thing worth mentioning is that Signal messages work off of a data connection. This means that high quality images and GIFs, as well as documents, can be sent between users (e2e encrypted as well). Or, if you’re in a hospital with no cellular reception, but free WiFi, you can still message the people you love or whatever.

I can’t recommend the use of Signal enough, but like I said, you don’t have to take my word for it…

EU Commission to staff: Switch to Signal messaging app – Politico, 02/20/2020

Ditch All Those Other Messaging Apps: Here’s Why You Should Use Signal – Wired, 11/05/2017

11 tips for protecting your privacy and digital security in the age of Trump – Freedom of the Press Foundation, 01/30/2017

And just for fun: Signal Messenger receives $50 million from WhatsApp co-founder – Engadget, 02/22/2018

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