What is Signal and why are protesters using it?

WhatsApp has lost it's status as privacy go-to since Facebook's acquisition.

a group of people protesting and holding signs

Wednesday, 10 June, 2020

Black Lives Matter.

The murder of George Floyd was the catalyst for a series of anti racism protests around the world. Over the last few weeks the movement has spread across from the US and into Europe. In the UK protesters have remained peaceful, only damaging statues glorifying the legacy of slavery.

However in the US protests have led to property damage, clashes with police and further police brutality. US police have been using undercover officers and online methods to monitor protesters. Because of this, protesters have started using alternative methods of communication, including Signal.

What is Signal?

Signal is an end-to-end encrypted messaging service. It sounds more futuristic than it is, but apps like WhatsApp are also end-to-end encrypted. End-to-end encryption means that only the sender and receiver can read (or decrypt) messages.

So why don’t people just use WhatsApp? Well, WhatsApp is now owned by Facebook, who are suspected of questionable practises when it comes to their customer data. So understandably protesters are cautious about using them to arrange protests which might get them into trouble.

It was all a blur.

In addition to messaging Signal also offers voice calls, group chats and camera options. This week Signal also announced a facial blurring feature for photos. The feature can automatically or selectively blur any face featured in a photo. This is useful for protesters who want to document events without putting others at risk from law enforcement tracing.

With the new feature, users can tap ‘blur’ to automatically disguise any faces the app’s AI finds in a photo. Users can also selectively blur faces or identifying features which the AI might have missed in auto mode.

Signal’s creator said that all processing happens directly on the user’s phone, which reduces the chance of an unblurred photo accidentally leaking out.

Signal for change.

It’s no coincidence that the face disguising feature rolled out at a time when users need it most. Signal’s founder Moxie Marlinspike made the following statement to announce the new feature’s rollout.

“We believe that something in America needs to change…even if we don’t know exactly how, we support and trust in the people who are self-organising around the country to figure it out… One immediate thing seems clear: 2020 is a pretty good year to cover your face.”

Natalie Dunning author picture


Natalie Dunning is a freelance writer and Media Psychology researcher based in Manchester.