What is Signal, and why is everybody downloading it right now?

What is Signal, and why is everybody downloading it right now?

2021-01-12 19:10:00

Once a niche messaging service for privacy residents, Signal is currently the most downloaded app in the United States, removing the perennially popular social media and gaming apps. Its renewed popularity is due to a confluence of reasons including changing WhatsApp policies, Capitol violence that led many tech companies to deplatform Trump, and a viral tweet from the world's richest man.

Tesla founder Elon Musk showed up last Thursday tweeted & # 39; Use Signal & # 39; and sent the valuation of the wrong company, the small tech company Signal Advance, beyond his wildest expectations. Musk was referring to the unrelated encrypted messaging gear, which also benefited greatly from the tweet.

Signal first became the most downloaded app on the App Store and Google Play. The sudden growth even caused delays when obtaining verification codes to new Signal users.

The tweet came a day after Musk tweeted a meme blaming Facebook for its role in the violent storming of the Capitol, in which Trump supporters, citing conspiracy theories about a stolen election, failed Congress. to certify Joe Biden's election victory. The meme illustrates the & # 39; domino effect & # 39; from the inception of Facebook as & # 39; a website to rate women on campus & # 39; to the Capitol, which is & # 39; controlled by a man in a Viking hat & # 39 ;.

A few days earlier, on January 4, WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, had issued a new privacy policy, that many interpreted would mean that users would have to share personal information with Facebook's advertising network in order to use the platform. Facebook clarified that WhatsApp messages remain encrypted and that personal information such as contacts is not shared with Facebook. Still, many users – spurred in part by Musk's tweet – were flocking to other encrypted messaging apps like Telegram (now No. 2 on the App Store) and Signal (now No. 1).

But as influential as Musk is, he doesn't twitter in a vacuum. Signal's growth in popularity also came when numerous tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter, Trump and his followers and try to prevent their technologies from being used in the service of further violence. Parler, the right-wing alternative to social media, was also booted off the Internet; Google and Apple have banned it from its app stores and Amazon Web Services has stopped hosting the app on its servers.

Typically praised by privacy advocates and left-wing activists, Signal is at the top of app stores other privacy-focused alternatives to social media like MeWe. It is unclear to what extent the shift to these apps is supported by people from the periphery in need of new places to interact. Due to the encrypted nature of the app, it is difficult to know (more on this below).

Previously, the number of new Signal users has skyrocketed due to social or political unrest. Signal downloads spiked after Donald Trump's election, which rolled back some privacy protections. Downloads also grew during Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality last spring, when activists strived to organize while staying safe from law enforcement.

“Due to the nature of social apps and the way communication with others is its primary functionality, their growth can often be quite rapid based on current events,” Amir Ghodrati, director of market insights at App Annie, told Recode.

The mobile data and analytics provider said the demand for privacy-focused messaging apps has increased in recent years as internet privacy becomes a more mainstream issue and people spend more time – an average of 67 percent more time in the first half of 2020 – in messaging apps than in social media apps.

What makes Signal different?

Signal is an end-to-end encrypted communication app, available for mobile and desktop. That means users can send text messages or make phone or video calls without outsiders – or the platform itself – seeing the content of those messages. Intercepted messages look like a string of garbled text and symbols.

For example, the police would not be able to access Signal messages, whether those communiqués include political activism or revenge porn. Protesters have preferred the platform as a way to communicate and organize without being spied on by the police. A 2016 instance where a grand jury issued a subpoena for Signal data that yielded minimal information: when the user registered for the service and when they last used it. Unencrypted apps are said to give law enforcement insight into the messages themselves.

Founded in 2014 by an enigmatic software engineer, 'white hat' hacker and anarchist thinker Moxie Marlinspike, Signal was developed by a non-profit organization, which means it is unlikely to be taken over by, say, a major technology company. And unlike big tech companies, the service doesn't sell ads or user data. It's backed by donations, including a $ 50 million loan from co-founder Brian Acton, who also created WhatsApp. WhatsApp is encrypted with Signal's protocol and was acquired by Facebook in 2014. Critics are concerned that Facebook's ownership of WhatsApp makes it less secure than Signal.

Signal's software is open source so others can download or copy it. The founders' mission is for end-to-end encryption to become commonplace, even to the point where Signal is not needed.

"Once we've pushed the boundaries as far as possible and the things we're developing become as ubiquitous as possible, we can all focus on other things," Marlinspike told the New Yorker in an October profile.

While Signal has its drawbacks, including the fact that it notifies users every time a new contact receives the service and that you can only communicate securely if others have the app, it is widely believed that it enough privacy for ordinary people. That is to say, it is easy to use and generally safe. For safer programs, you need to jump through more hoops.

Signal focuses more on direct communication than broad social media communication, although recently increased the limit for group conversations from five to eight users and the group chats amount to 1,000 users. The company is also rolling out new features like wallpaper and animated stickers. This summer it is released a tool that would automatically blur faces, so people could, for example, share videos of protests without identifying the protesters.

It's possible Signal's most recent wave was supported by protesters – this time on the right. With social media companies taking a more active stance on what is allowed on their platforms following the violent Capitol riots, it makes sense that those looking for new platforms should turn to platforms where their communications are kept secret.


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