Signal is a privacy-focused messaging app that uses more security protocols than regular SMS text messaging.
In one of his characteristically short, sweet, and to-the-point tweets, Elon Musk recently directed his followers to simply "Use Signal," an encrypted messaging platform lauded for taking security protocol a few steps further than similar services.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2021
Signal has already been gaining in popularity since the summer of 2020, as protesters in support of the Black Lives Matter movement used the app to keep their messages away from police officers that could be potentially monitoring their correspondences and location. According to a report in The New York Times, the app saw five times more downloads in the first week of June 2020 as compared to the week prior to the police killing of George Floyd.
But with Musk's missive, his followers swarmed to the app in droves. In a January 13 tweet, Signal said the app had gone from 10 million installs on the Google Play market to 50 million downloads in the span of a single day. Two days later, the company notified its users that it was "experiencing technical difficulties" due to the influx of new installs.
"We have been adding new servers and extra capacity at a record pace every single day this week nonstop, but today exceeded even our most optimistic projections," the company said in a January 15 tweet. "Millions upon millions of new users are sending a message that privacy matters. We appreciate your patience."
So what exactly is the hype all about? Here's everything you need to know about Signal, from how it works, to who owns it, to why you should consider downloading it now.
What Is Signal?
Signal is a messaging app, just like WhatsApp or iMessage or Facebook Messenger, but one that's geared toward privacy and security rather than cute emoji stickers. In fact, its security measures are so good that even Edward Snowden recommends it—and he should know which apps are the best for stopping unwanted snooping.
Signal is free to use and available on both Android and iOS operating systems. Alongside the extra security protocols, it includes all of the basic messaging tools you're going to need, including read receipts, emoji support, group chats, and voice and video calls.
As on WhatsApp, Signal uses your mobile number to identify you to your contacts, so there are no new usernames or passwords to remember, and you can dive straight in. On Android, you can also use Signal to send normal SMS and MMS messages to contacts who don't have the app installed, but those messages won't have the same security protections.
Why Use Signal?
First and foremost, you should use Signal because it protects your chats. Anything that you send or receive is encrypted, which makes it very hard for anyone who intercepts the data to work out what's being said unless they are the specified recipient. It's all thanks to a concept known as end-to-end encryption.
Many companies use encryption, which basically scrambles the contents of a message or some other snippet of data, rendering it completely useless without the decryption key, which can unshuffle the jargon and restore the original.
Under this framework, a company usually has the cryptographic encryption key, which means the data isn't truly safe if a government or hacker gets their hands on the key. End-to-end encryption, though, means only the end computer—the one receiving the data—has the encryption key stored. In theory, that person's computer could still be hacked and the encryption key could be forfeited, but it really reduces those odds.
Signal's end-to-end encryption is powered by the company's open source Signal Protocol. That means the company can't read your messages or listen to your calls, and no one else can either. And since Signal doesn't store any user data, governments and other agencies can't request it, and it can't leak out.
On top of that, all the code is open source, so anyone can look at how the app is written. While that doesn't mean hackers can break Signal's encryption (which is virtually uncrackable), it does mean security experts and users can check that Signal is maintaining the high privacy standards it says it is.
Just about every security researcher who has taken a look at Signal has given it a big thumbs up from a data privacy and security standpoint, and its underlying technologies are now used in many other apps, too. The FBI and CIA might not like it, but right now, Signal is about as good as it gets for "going dark" on your phone.
How Do You Use Signal?
Signal isn't difficult to use, and the setup is the same as with many other messaging programs—all of that clever security technology is hidden away behind the scenes. When you've installed the app on your phone, you'll be asked to enter and confirm your phone number. On Android, you'll also be asked if you want to set the app as the default for normal text messages. (Apple, of course, doesn't let you change the default SMS app on iOS.)
Tap the pen icon to start a conversation or select an existing thread to continue it. Icons to send messages, make calls, attach files, share photos, and embed voice clips all appear inside the conversation window, though there are some small differences between the Android and iOS apps.
You can set messages to automatically disappear on a contact-by-contact basis. On Android, open up the menu inside a conversation (the three vertical dots), tap Disappearing messages, and set a time limit. On iOS, tap the banner at the top of the conversation to do the same thing. Remember that conversations can still be captured via screenshot, though even this is blocked in the Android version of Signal.
As a bonus, you now have the option to blur photos right in the app so that sensitive data, like people's faces at a protest, won't be exposed. Just open Signal, select a conversation or contact, tap the "+" icon and select the Gallery option. Select the photo, click Continue, and tap the Blur icon at the top of the page. Pick the Blur Photos option and tap Confirm.
Who Owns Signal?
The executive chairman of the Signal Foundation is Brian Acton, a cofounder of WhatsApp.
Signal is the lovechild of two pieces of software from Whisper Systems, which launched in 2010: RedPhone, an encrypted voice calling app, and TextSecure, an encrypted texting platform. In 2011, Twitter acquired Whisper Systems and subsequently shut down RedPhone. Later that year, the social media company rereleased TextSecure as a free, open-source messaging platform.
We are so grateful for the outpouring of support from everyone who is contributing to Signal's ongoing operation and development. We're a 501c3 nonprofit and we couldn't do this without you.
If you are on the fence about donating, you can give in here:https://t.co/iLLStll3Mi
— Signal (@signalapp) January 14, 2021
In February 2014, security researcher Moxie Marlinspike—one of the cofounders of Whisper Systems—left Twitter to start Open Whisper Systems. This was the point at which TextSecure began to look more like today's version of Signal, with end-to-end encryption and instant messaging capabilities. By July 2014, the software officially became known as Signal.
Acton got together with Marlinspike in February 2018 to create the Signal Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to making private communication "accessible and ubiquitous." Acton provided $50 million in startup funds after leaving WhatsApp about six months prior. To this day, Signal continues to keep its lights on solely through donations.
What About Signal Alternatives?
If Signal doesn't cut it for some reason, you can try out Telegram, a competitor messaging app that prioritizes speed and security. In a similar fashion to Signal, Telegram uses end-to-end encryption to send photos, messages, videos, and other files. However, it's optional, and not the default—you have to start a dedicated "secret chat."
Unlike Signal, Telegram is a bit more like email and SMS combined, as you can create a username to broadcast messages to groups or channels of up to 200,000 people. However, those big group chats won't feature end-to-end encryption, as Telegram only supports that option in 1:1 conversations.
Still, Telegram has a few redeeming qualities over Signal, including the ability to transfer larger file sizes of up to 2 gigabytes (Signal only lets you send files of up to 100 megabytes); synchronization of messages across devices thanks to the cloud; the ability to add helpful bots to your conversations; and generally, a better user interface, complete with moving stickers and the ability to customize your chat windows.
More differences between Signal and Telegram:
➡️ Signal will keep everything on your device by default, while Telegram will hold your conversations in its servers.
➡️ Security researchers say Signal's encryption scheme is more advanced than Telegram's, but it's complicated.
➡️ Signal is run by a nonprofit, while Telegram is owned and operated by Pavel Durov, a Russian billionaire known for launching Vkontakte, a social media site.
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