Signal Desktop: Probably a good thing

Tuesday, December 8, 2015 

Signal is an easy to use chat tool that competes (effectively) with What’sApp or Viber. They’ve just released a desktop version which is being “preview released/buzz generating released.”  It is developed by a guy with some cred in the open source and crypto movement, Moxie Marlinspike.  I use it, but do not entirely trust it.

I’m not completely on board with Signal.  It is open source, and so in theory we can verify the code.  But there’s some history I find disquieting.  So while I recommend it as the best, easiest to use, (probably) most secure messaging tool available, I do so with some reservations.

  • It originally handled encrypted SMS messages.  There is a long argument about why they broke SMS support on the mailing lists.  I find all of the arguments Whisper Systems made specious and unconvincing and cannot ignore the fact that the SMS tool sent messages through the local carrier (Asiacell, Korek, or Zain here).  Breaking that meant secure messages only go through Whisper Systems’ Google-managed servers where all metadata is captured and accessible to the USG. Since it was open source, that version has been forked and is still developed, I use the SMSSecure fork myself
  • Signal has captured all the USG funding for messaging systems.  Alternatives are not getting funds.  This may make sense from a purely managerial point of view, but also creates a single point of infiltration.  It is far easier to compromise a single project if there aren’t competing projects.   Part of the strength of Open Source is only achieved when competing development teams are trying to one up each other and expose each other’s flaws (FreeBSD and OpenBSD for example).  In a monoculture, the checks and balances are weaker.
  • Signal has grown more intimate with Google over time.  The desktop version sign up uses your “google ID” to get you in the queue.  Google is the largest commercial spy agency in the world, collecting more data on more people than any other organization except probably the NSA.  They’re currently an advertising company and make their money selling your data to advertisers, something they’re quite disingenuous about, but the data trove they’ve built is regularly mined by organizations with more nefarious aims than merely fleecing you.

What to do?  Well, I use signal.  I’m pretty confident the encryption is good, or at least as good as anything else available.  I know my metadata is being collected and shared, but until Jake convinces Moxie to use anonymous identifiers for accounts and message through Tor hidden nodes, you have to be very tech savvy to get around that and there’s no Civil Society grants going to any other messaging services using, for example, an open standard like a Jabber server on a hidden node with OTR.

For now, take a half step up the security ladder and stop using commercial faux security (or unverifiable security, which is the same thing) and give Signal a try.

Maybe at some later date I’ll write up an easy to follow guide on setting up your own jabber server as a tor hidden service and federating it so you can message securely, anonymously, and keep your data (meta and otherwise) on your own hardware in your own house, where it still has at least a little legal protection.


Posted at 10:21:22 UTC

Category: PositivePrivacyreviewsSecuritytechnology