So... is Signal good or bad?

2021-01-29 4-minute read

After Facebook updated their Whatsapp privacy policy, and a certain rich capitalist who doesn’t like Facebook for reasons different then mine told the world to use Signal, Signal’s downloads went up by 4,200%.

As often happens when something becomes popular, the criticisms start to fly!

For the record, I currently think promoting Signal is an important tactical strategy for the left. [I also think we should promote and install federated chat apps like conversations and element and delta chat whereever it is possible.]

Here are some of the main criticisms I hear that I think are a distraction:

  • Signal forces you to use the Google Play store and Google Services: This isn’t true any more. You can download the apk directly on a phone without any Google services and it works great. The app will alert you to new versions.

    Don’t get me wrong: the Signal network still depends on Google services. And, we should be avoiding corporate technology and building our own infrastructure. However, in practice, Signal is an alternative to Whatsapp and Telegram - which not only use the same corporate services but are proprietary technology that is fully owned by powerful tech giants. Signal is still a non-profit organization with a vastly different mission.

  • Signal’s approach to privacy isn’t perfect (the most common variation on this theme is that a state actor could monitor your outgoing communications and the incoming communications of the person you are communicating with and prove that you are communicating with each other).

    This criticism missed what makes Signal so important. The beauty of Signal is that it addresses the “woops!” moment most privacy activists had when Snowden’s data trove become public: it provides mass privacy to stop mass surveillance. Prior to 2013, most tech/privacy activists were focused on the “targeted” individual approach to privacy, working hard to make sure our tools were as absolutely perfect as possible for the tiny percentage of people who know they are under surveillance. Very little effort went into getting them adopted on a mass scale.

    Criticizing Signal for not providing perfect privacy misses that fact that these things often are trade offs.

    This trade-off also applies to the first point - dependency on Google services makes installation far easier for suporting millions of people.

Here are some criticisms that I think are nuanced:

  • Signal is a centralized app: this criticism often includes examples of Moxie (Signal’s founder) refusing and actively discouraging attempts by others to write software that interacts with Signal.

    Signal is free software, which is a major improvement over most corporate technology. But since it’s entirely controlled by one entity, it can be shutdown in a heart beat. And, if Signal changes direction, we cannot easily take the work we have all invested in learning signal and create our own version that reflects our values.

    This problem is in contrast to federated systems like email - where anyone can run their own email server and apply their own policies. If one email serveer is shutdown, you can move to another.

    I agree with this critique, but I think it’s nuanced because of the trade offs. Having full control over the entire network and all the software provides a level of reliability and consistency that would not be possible with a federated protocol. And, we already have three different, fully viable federated chat protocols (see above). I’d rather have Signal be Signal and invest our energy on a federated chat system via the existing, well-developed alternatives.

    This opinion is tactical - and could change at any moment. I think there will come a time when we are going to tell the world to move from Signal to the best available federated protocol. But I’m not convinced we have a robust enough federated chat infrastructure to support that move.

  • Signal forces you to use your phone number as an identifier: You can’t get a Signal account without a phone number. And you generally can’t get a phone number without revealing some aspect of your identity. That makes staying anoymous very difficult. There are reports of a new Signal feature making it possible to avoid revealing your phone number when communicating with others, but you would still need a phone number to get an account because a SMS or phone call confirmation is required.

  • Signal isn’t getting ahead of the curve on abuse: There’s an interesting piece informed by former Signal staff people about the management’s resistance to getting ahead of the curve when it comes to abuse. How would signal respond to reports of harrassment? What would signal do if it recognized facsists movements organizing on its platform? Any mass platform that is not planning for abuse is going to be in big trouble very soon.

These last two are not exactly two sides of the same coin, but they are related. How Signal manages to balance privacy and protection from abuse will be the real test as to whether promoting Signal continues to be a useful strategy for the left.