We can do better than Signal

Centralized silos are never the solution

Signal is possibly the most recommended pro-privacy instant communication app — one that was commonplace in the hacker community, and has now gained a lot of mainstream traction, thanks to WhatsApp deciding to screw its userbase over. It certainly presents a more compelling alternative than others in the same space, like WhatsApp itself, Telegram, etc. They engineered the Signal Protocol, which has found its way into other messaging systems, and has been the base for the likes of OMEMO and Matrix.1 While I admire the tech behind Signal, I still believe we can do better, and we ought to.

I have a few gripes with Signal — the biggest of them all is it’s centralized, and in the US no less. This alone makes it not that different from WhatsApp — we’re simply moving from one silo to another. What’s to say that Signal will uphold its values, continue operating and evade censorship and potential compromise? To top it off, they’re becoming a fairly high value target off late. And if that isn’t convincing enough, Signal’s massive outage lasting nearly a day2 should be enough evidence against centralization. Further, Signal is known to use AWS3 as their cloud provider — what if another Parler4 happens and the rug is pulled from under Signal’s feet?

A common defense in favor of Signal is, “But it’s all open source!”. Sure is, but on what basis do I trust them? I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial, but what’s to say that the server in production hasn’t been backdoored? In fact, the Signal server code hasn’t even been updated since April 2020. You’re telling me it’s undergone no changes?

Another response I usually see is “But Signal is all we have!”. While that is somewhat true — at least by the metric of “secure messengers your granny can use”, there are some promising alternatives who are especially focused on decentralizing E2EE communications.

  1. Matrix: Matrix has improved a whole lot, and I like that they’re working to disprove that end-to-end encryption cannot be decentralized5.
  2. Session: While it involves some cryptoshit, and hasn’t been verified yet, it’s an interesting alternative to keep an eye out for.

All things said, Signal is the shiniest turd we have — it fits most threat models, and does the job alright; I will continue to use it. However, here’s something to think about: while privacy preserving tech is commendable, does it have to come at the cost of user freedoms? Hint: it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t.

Questions or comments? Send an email to ~icyphox/x@lists.sr.ht — my public inbox.