• Transparency Networks

Data is power in today’s economy, with concerns on who has access to it dominating contemporary discourse. With our growing dependence on technology comes increasing threats to privacy and security. Whether it's browsing engines, social media, or messengers – different platforms monitor, collect, and monetize sensitive information about their users. Most of the time, the users are none the wiser.

It comes as no surprise that WhatsApp received widespread backlash after announcing alarming changes to its privacy policy – essentially stating its intentions to use your chat data for advertising. Following the announcement, users rapidly made the switch to Signal – a secure messaging app endorsed by personalities like Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, American whistleblower Edward Snowden, and authorities such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others.

In this article, we address the burning questions around Signal and what it means for the future of secure messaging.

What is Signal?

'Say Hello to Privacy' is the brand’s tagline and speaks to its USP. Signal is a messaging app available for Apple (iPhone and iPad), Android, Mac, and Linux devices. The app garnered interest because of Brian Acton, former co-founder of WhatsApp. Acton left the company in 2017 and donated $50 million to fund Signal. After leaving WhatsApp, Acton, along with current Signal CEO Moxie Marlinspike founded the Signal Foundation and Signal Messenger.

What Makes Signal Different?

Signal is a free service offering secure messaging, group chats, voice and video calls with end-to-end encryption. The app’s open-source Signal Protocol is a game-changer in implementing end-to-end encryption. Additionally, it goes a step further and also encrypts user metadata.

Why is metadata so important? Theoretically, anyone tapping into people’s communications can still gain access to user metadata despite end-to-end encryption. Metadata comprises information such as timings of chats, device identities, or who is chatting with whom. Protecting the privacy of our messages is critical but encrypting metadata is just as important.

What distinguishes Signal from other apps is its approach to user data. Signal only collects user phone numbers, while WhatsApp, for instance, is known to collate reams of information like user ID, phone numbers, device ID, email addresses, contacts, advertising data, and payment information.

Too Good to Be True?

Not quite, believes Signal COO Aruna Harder, in response to concerns about whether Signal can continue offering free services as its user base increases. Signal is a nonprofit with seemingly no vested interests in profits or selling user data. So as a non-profit, they simply 'need to break even' says Aruna Harder.

I Have Nothing to Hide

'I have nothing to hide' is a common stance with most people indifferent to data privacy. However, the average person should be worried about identity theft or social security numbers being leaked.

Additionally, users should never assume privacy despite end-to-end encryption. Most of us use keyboards that automatically predict and store text before an app like Signal can read it.

On a Parting Note

It is crucial to make a distinction between data security and data privacy. Security protects your data while privacy safeguards your identity. When choosing a messenger app, both components are critical.

At Transparency Networks we recognize the importance of mitigating security risks and making privacy a fundamental part of our organization’s DNA. Using an app with end-toend encryption is the best way to safeguard data and privacy. By using Signal, we’re aiming to further enhance our secure communications and strengthen a culture of trust in how we function every day.

  • Transparency Networks

After the extended period of gloom and doom throughout 2020, new energy and direction arrived with the US presidential elections in November. It was an election of firsts in several ways. Global pandemic or no, a record-breaking 168 million people came out to vote. President Joe Biden won against all odds. His running mate, Kamala Harris is the first woman of color to occupy the office of Vice-President.

With a new administration comes renewed opportunities to safeguard the rights of upright citizens. Many courageous individuals continue to speak truth to power at grave personal and professional risks.

Whistleblowers had a particularly rough ride during the Trump administration. One of the most well-known cases is the scandal involving former President Trump himself. A whistleblower's complaint accused Trump of abusing his power to solicit international interference in the 2020 elections.

Details emerged of Trump’s sustained attempts to coerce Ukraine into investigating his then opponent, Joe Biden. Not only did he endanger national security, but some of the top brass in his administration also tried to cover up the matter. Trump publicly called out the whistleblower and received severe backlash for it worldwide.

New Beginnings

The arrival of the Biden-Harris administration is an excellent opportunity to strengthen whistleblower protections. The Biden-Harris team has already pledged numerous changes to demonstrate its commitment towards accountability and transparency. Notably, the appointment of Rick Bright to the Coronavirus Taskforce has kickstarted the long road to repair. During the Trump administration, authorities removed Bright as the Director of HHS for refusing to promote a malaria drug as the cure for the virus.

As the incoming administration begins charting the road ahead for the country, the whistle-blower community hopes leaders will pay close attention to critical areas. Some of these are increased protection of frontline workers and their rights, along with enhanced public health and safety.

Battling the virus and economic recovery go hand-in-hand. The country will be looking to team Biden-Harris to ramp up vigilance and prevent large-scale misappropriation of COVID relief funds. Like any global crisis, some groups always stand to profit more than others. However, given the unprecedented loss of lives and livelihoods in 2020, there can no longer be further scope for error in this regard.

Alongside, the new administration also has the opportunity to establish trust with the public from the get-go. There is a dire need to appoint task forces or set up online platforms to share accurate information or dispel any misinformation related to the virus.

With a new federal government, there is hope that ordinary citizens can speak the truth without fearing for their lives. Collective endeavors among civil society, federal agencies, and independent agencies will be deal-breakers – one of the only ways to ensure an accountable government and build societies that do not demonize whistleblowers.