PSA: Use Signal

screen-shot-2015-12-02-at-3-25-12-pmI’ve mentioned this app before to friends, but I really want to encourage EVERYONE to start using Signal. Here’s what’s going on. We are living in the most technologically advanced period in our history, so far. While technology continues to advance, and we are capable of doing so much more than we could a few years ago, many forget that our laws have not caught up.

Right now, if you use a phone, it is tracking what websites you visit, how often, what apps you use, who you call, how long you talk, etc. When you take a picture, your phone saves location data into the picture file itself. The argument is that by tracking these things, the provider (or manufacturers, app developers, etc) can better tailor updates and features to you. If you like shopping for shoes, Facebook will start to show you ads for shoes. The problem with that, is that it can reveal a fucking ton of information. There was a story a few years ago, about Target being able to determine that someone was pregnant before she did. This story had been somewhat exaggerated, but the concept is still the same.

The government wants in on the game, too. Under the guise of stopping terrorism, they have been amassing vast quantities of information on all Americans. Thanks to various legal loopholes, and despite calls for reform, this hasn’t improved. The NSA leaks by American HERO, Edward Snowden, showed how deep this went. It turns out that the 1998 movie, Enemy of the State was a documentary.

We’ve found out that while the argument was that “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide”, the reality is that the NSA forced telecom agencies to release practically everything to the government, usually without a warrant. This wasn’t targeted information gathering. This was mass collection of your information. The government claimed that it was just looking for metadata, rather than detailed user information.

Then, earlier this month, it was revealed that Yahoo had secretly put code in it’s software to automatically scan all user emails for keywords, which would be then transferred to the NSA. Their own IT staff wasn’t even informed.

Google recently released Allo, it’s new messaging app. It was instantly criticized by privacy advocates because, like previously mentioned, “Google intends to use Allo chat histories as a way to help train its machine-learning algorithms. But the revelations that your messages will remain on Allo until you chose to delete them and that the app is unencrypted by default caused a bit of an uproar this week.”.

So as a user, we have to walk this fine line between security, convenience, and privacy. We want law enforcement to stop terrorism, but we don’t want them going through EVERYONE’s personal data. We want AI based software that can run smart devices, but we don’t want corporations to have access to our personal conversations. What used to be something that just concerned paranoid nerds should now concern everyone.

One way that you can protect yourself, is using as much encryption as possible. I might do a write up of how to encrypt your computer. For now, you should use HTTPS whenever you can. There are extensions for most browsers that force this. Check your privacy settings on each website periodically, because they tend to change, especially in Facebook’s case.

And lastly, (the main point of this article) use Signal, a messaging app. Signal is made by Open Whisper Systems, and is designed to replace your default SMS app. It is open source (so you can view the code and make sure everything is on the up and up), and it is available for free on Android, iOS, and they’ve recently made an extension for Chrome. It works via any internet connection, so you can use it on WiFi or your phone’s data network. Facebook even started using the Signal protocol in their own messaging app, but it’s turned off by default, and only works with one device at a time, which makes it useless if you chat on your phone and laptop and computer, etc.

It works by encrypting each end of the conversation. Think of it this way. You place a lock on your side of the conversation, and the person to whom you are talking places a lock on their side of the conversation. This is called end to end encryption. Everything between the two locks are encrypted, and can’t be opened by anyone but you two. It’s like you have a key to the lock. Once the message is sent from the other person, it is scrambled. Only your key can open it and unscramble the message.

Best of all, there’s nothing to release to the government. Earlier this month, Open Whisper Systems was subpoena’d. Here’s their response. “The only information we can produce in response to a request like this is the date and time a user registered with Signal and the last date of a user’s connectivity to the Signal service.”

Use this to replace your text messaging, your Facebook messenger, your Hangouts messenger. You can even make calls with it, though I haven’t tried that. It now supports disappearing messages, so it can replace SnapChat. Here’s the catch though. It only encrypts the messages if both people are using it. So still use it. It will work, as a regular messaging app. Get into the habit of using it. But talk your friends into using it, too. The more people who use it, the more we can stand up against our own government and corporations from spying on us. Best of all, it offers all the security, with no downside. You won’t lose any functionality. You don’t have to go through a painfully long process of generating and sharing PGP keys. You just make the internet a little safer for everyone, especially yourself.

Please share this with everyone you know. Use Signal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: