Friends don't let friends chat unencrypted - A look at Signal messenger

Have your heard of Signal? Depending on who you ask, there’s a very good chance the answer to that question is, unfortunately, no. To get to the point, Signal is a free messaging platform much like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts or Telegram, but it has a focus on security and privacy.

Speaking of, for this post I’m going to assume you agree that privacy is important, whether you have something to hide or not. In a context where one can reasonably assume to be in private, an individual should not need to feel concern, be it in inside your own home, or sending a direct message to a friend as is this case. If you somehow disagree with the above, well, I guess you may as well continue on with your day, this one isn’t for you - though I strongly suggest having a careful think about the topic!

So what makes Signal stand out from the rest from a security standpoint? And what pitfalls might you experience if you did decide to try the service? In this post I cover why I think Signal should be your messenger of choice (trust me, I’ve tried a lot..).

Signal - The Fort Knox of messengers

To make this as digestible as possible, below are the three key things that make Signal different to the rest.

What’s up with WhatsApp?

As you may have spotted above, WhatsApp uses Signal’s open source encryption protocol, just like other popular messengers. But unlike the rest, WhatsApp is the only one to fully adopt it, enabling for all users by default. Doesn’t that make WhatsApp just as secure as Signal, you may ask? Well, sort of. Other than the simple fact that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, a huge corporation that profits primarily from users data and is known to show no shame in finding every possible route to exploit that data, WhatsApp remains a solid choice for consumers from a privacy perspective, for now. Here’s a summary of the caveats of WhatsApp:

Brian Acton - Privacy reborn?

I wanted to write a quick section on Brian Acton - WhatsApp’s founder, simply because his story helps bolster Signal’s reputation. In 2009, former Yahoo! employees Brian Acton and Jan Koum, founded WhatsApp, a messaging app that Acton was keen to make secure and ad-free. Although things started slow, the app picked up popularity before being brought by Facebook for a record $19 billion in 2014. The sale came as somewhat a surprise to some, given Acton’s strong views on privacy and and providing an ad-free experience, the two things Facebook exploit for profit. Both Acton and Koum continued their roles at WhatsApp under the Facebook umbrella, but not without reports of frequent disputes between Acton and board regarding WhatsApp’s future. After continued internal conflict, Acton left Facebook/WhatsApp in 2018, and perhaps in an attempt of self-redemption, provided the initial $50 million donation that kickstarted The Signal Foundation, a step that solidifies Signal’s efforts to provide free expression and privacy for all.

“Okay, but Telegram’s my jam”

For those of you Telegram users out there reading this who are probably thinking “yeah, but Telegram is secure too”, this bit is for you. Firstly, it’s certainly a reasonable statement to make. Telegram screams to the hills about it’s pro-privacy and highly secure nature, and it’s probably a fairly safe bet but there are a few key differences that makes Signal the better choice from a privacy standpoint.

Here’s the key ways in which they differ (a little repetition here..).

So, you want give Signal a shot?

Maybe you’ve read this far (wow, thanks!) and you feel like Signal is something you should try, but you want to know what the experience will be like. After all, surely such a secure platform is going to mean less convenience? Well, actually, no. Okay fine, sort of.

From a usability and feature standpoint, Signal is most comparable to WhatsApp. It too uses your phone number to find your friends and offers the follows functionality:

As you can see, the list is pretty comprehensive. While you maybe missing some gimmicky features some other services provide (stuff like custom font sizes and sticker packs), there’s really nothing essential you’ll long for after a move to Signal, with the exception of one, very fundamental thing.. Your contacts.

A lack of adoption of Signal by the majority is its single biggest pain point for people who want to enjoy the assurance of a secure and reliable messaging service.

So my recommendation? Just install Signal and get it setup. Give people the option to contact you on it, even if you have no plans to use it for now, or in fact, have no one in your contact list who uses it. When it comes to gaining new users, the biggest downfall of any messenger is when a user downloads it and finds an empty list of friends, and that can only change with installs!

Signal - Official Site

Signal - Google Play Store

Signal - Apple App Store

I also highly recommend taking a read of this article from Micah Lee at The Intercept which takes a dive into Signal vs other apps, with information directly from Signal’s founder, Moxie Marlinspike.

To close this out, Signal announced just this week that it is testing and rolling out a new privacy measure that enables the encryption of the sender information of each message.