Here’s what Signal is and how it works.
Use Signal— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2021
The tweet was then retweeted by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Shortly after, Signal tweeted that it was working to handle the surge of new users.
This isn’t the first time Musk has publicly sparred with Facebook over privacy concerns. In 2018, he not only had his own personal Facebook page removed, but those of his companies Tesla and SpaceX. His take on the long-fought battle between Signal and WhatsApp isn’t off-base, though.
Both of the encrypted messaging apps have been found to have security bugs over the years that have been resolved. For years, WhatsApp has openly collected certain user data to share with parent company Facebook. Its latest policy change just expands that. Signal, on the other hand, has a history of fighting any entity that asks for your data, and adds features to further anonymize you where possible.
Here are the basics of Signal you should know if you’re interested in using the secure messaging app.
What Signal is, and how encrypted messaging works
Signal is a typical one-tap install app that can be found in your normal marketplaces like Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store, and works just like the usual text messaging app. It’s an open source development provided free of charge by the non-profit Signal Foundation, and has been famously used for years by high-profile privacy icons like Edward Snowden.
Signal’s main function is that it can send text, video, audio and picture messages protected by end-to-end encryption, after verifying your phone number and letting you independently verify other Signal users’ identity. You can also use it to make voice and video calls, either one-to-one or with a group. For a deeper dive into the potential pitfalls and limitations of encrypted messaging apps, CNET’s Laura Hautala’s explainer is a life-saver. But for our purposes, the key to Signal is encryption.
Despite the buzz around the term, end-to-end encryption is simple: Unlike normal SMS messaging apps, it garbles up your messages before sending them, and only ungarbles them for the verified recipient. This prevents law enforcement, your mobile carrier and other snooping entities from being able to read the contents of your messages even when they intercept them (which happens more often than you might think).
When it comes to privacy it’s hard to beat Signal’s offer. It doesn’t store your user data. And beyond its encryption prowess, it gives you extended, onscreen privacy options, including app-specific locks, blank notification pop-ups, face-blurring anti-surveillance tools, and disappearing messages. Occasional bugs have proven that the tech is far from bulletproof, of course, but the overall arc of Signal’s reputation and results have kept it at the top of every privacy-savvy person’s list of identity protection tools.
For years, the core privacy challenge for Signal lay not in its technology but in its wider adoption. Sending an encrypted Signal message is great, but if your recipient isn’t using Signal, then your privacy may be nil. Think of it like the herd immunity created by vaccines, but for your messaging privacy.
Now that Musk and Dorsey’s endorsements have sent a surge of users to get a privacy booster shot, however, that challenge may be a thing of the past.
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