Why Signal is Dying, where to now?

10 Minute Read.

As an early adopter of digital things I was delighted to support Signal since its early days. I no longer think it is a viable platform, this is my departure eulogy.

I first came across Signal just after being badly stung by the Telegram snake oil fiasco. I was excited by Telegram and promoted it to my peers and friends who also care about the future of digital security. Then I found myself ashamed of having ‘called it’ before having done sufficient due diligence because shortly after my recommendation came a security analysis that exposed the weakness of Telegram encryption.

This led to me being much more cautious about Signal. But when Edward Snowden famously offered his testimony of assurance, I felt more willing to once again invite my peers to use something that might, like him, help us navigate to a future that is less based on surveillance capitalism and included Signal in my ‘eat my own dogfood’ recommended best practise.

Aside from a few glitches over the years Signal has provided me and my peers a great service. I love so much about it that it is almost perfect. I love the apps and where I can install them. I love that they take donations and that they are constantly developing features. I respect the passion and dedication of its founder, who shares that they once sat in the rain supporting the network.

But dedication and passion can only go so far, we get old and things change, even the most benevolent dictator has to entrust their opus at some stage to the next leader, who will have their own visions and goals. There are other issues with Signal too. Their server code is proprietary, which means I can’t run a server or inspect the code. They are centralised, which means that users must trust the company to stay in business and keep all its infrastructure working. And lastly Signal, as yet, still requires a phone number, with all the impact on privacy that entails.

A few indicators let me know that Signal is dying. Although almost all of my older security digital peers still use it, over the last six months many, perhaps most of my activist and not activist friends have stopped using it. I have been curious why, and there have been a range of reasons, from ‘my old phone no longer supports it’, through to ‘Telegram is more flexible’ to the usual, ‘all my contacts are on Whatsapp’.

There are only so many glitches and direction changes that users will take before they start to leave. Signal originally handled both SMS and its own encrypted messages, and for a while this was great. It was great for months until glitches started and occasionally and without any alerts I missed some important SMS’s – not fun. I loved that it did two sorts of messages because it is so much more convenient having one less app! But a change of direction to focus on privacy led to it no longer supporting SMS.

In a similar fashion to Telegram I was an early adopter of Whatsapp. Like many others I was cautious to use it to start and I wondered if it was trustworthy. As the best app by far in the game at the time, it seemed too good to be true. But when in 2009 the founders blogged, ‘We have not, we do not and we will not ever sell your personal information to anyone. Period. End of story’, my trust was sufficiently assured and I took to Whatsapp with verve. At least four years before it became mainstream I was happily using its pioneering cross platform multimedia no cost calling with delight. I put aside my preference for libre licencing because nothing else came close to its functionality and ease. Even an officer in the military shared with me how they were shocked to find it being used, albeit unofficially, on exercise to share prescient intelligence in the field! Now almost everyone uses it, even my mother!

But then in 2014 Mark Zuckerberg bought Whatsapp and my heart sank and I uninstalled. The amount of money alone should have been a bright red warning light to everyone, in my not so humble opinion. Of course the assurances that users privacy would be maintained were paper thin, so it was just a question of time before Facebook would rip into the rich information contained in platform and privacy would once again become an illusion for the user product. To be honest I was surprised that it took so long for Meta to change the terms and conditions and start their assimilation. I guess that they wanted to wait till they were absolutely dominant in the market and that most had forgotten, or didn’t prioritise privacy in the first place, the assurances made by the Whatsapp founders and Meta.

And now I have a sense that it is time for me to mourn and depreciate my use of Signal and reinvest energy on building something better. I have moved back to the joy of IRC, and like a familiar old pair of well worn slippers, its a bit ragged but familiar and very comfy. I do this despite the sense that it is a backwards step, the work to make it less clunky and limitations of using IRC. Yet IRC remains one of the few places where it is possible to meet my needs for the assurances I enjoy.

I will of course checkout XMPP yet again, but I know of few communities that use it.

I still don’t fully trust Telegram, largely for similar reasons to the reasons that I outlined for Signal. They claim ‘trust us’, it is proprietary and centralised, and it really stung to have got it ‘wrong’ in the past. Now Telegram is used by people who care about security, and, one would assume, be impacted by any lack of security, for instance I know people who buy illicit substances using it. Another such example is the range and types of activists using it even in the more repressive societies. But the main change I notice is an uptake in ‘normal’ (non techie friends) on Telegram. It offers the huge assurance of not needing a phone number, and it is now used by not only my more conspiracy/’right wing’ peers. Also I observe that it is designed with automation/botting in mind, so with the exception that I want to minimise my investment of energy in things that do not contribute to a libre future, Telegram is appealing.

For a while I ran a Matrix server, before the balance of lack of peer uptake and some personal politics contributed to me to take a break. As a user Matrix is a good match, with the single exception of its paradigm of preserving history. I want to be in a digital space where people have the freedom to be vulnerable with affect or sensitive information or just change their mind! But this is the only problem with it, on almost every other measure Matrix is awesome and over the last year I built some wonderful things with it. Most wonderfully, I built a room with both Signal and Whatsapp users in it! And in many senses it is achieving its aim of being the one app from which a user can connect to many services, e.g. Beeper. I so love choice and freedom, and my matrix server worked for me for over a year, where I was able to use less apps because I connected my Matrix to most other services. At one point I even had a room with its own email account!

I am looking forward to when Matrix implements its voice call plans! Whether or not I will build another Matrix server in the next year, I will keep exploring and deploying services that might contribute in some way towards a future founded on a digital life that better meets needs than what we have now. Till we chat again,

yours with hope and love,