In early 2021, WhatsApp changed its user agreement. In order to use the messenger, each user has to agree to send personal data to its parent company Facebook. As a result, users have left WhatsApp en masse. One of the main alternatives to the popular network became the recently appeared messenger Signal, which is actively promoted as one of the most protected networks. Recommendations by Elon Musk and Edward Snowden significantly contributed to its popularity.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2021
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) November 2, 2015
Number of Signal downloading skyrocketed up to 4,200% after the WhatsApp policy change. From January 6 to 10, users around the world installed the Signal app on 7.5 million devices, according to analytics platform Sensor Tower.
However, Signal’s history is not as transparent as the security guarantee that its programmers promote.
The founder and developer of the Signal encryption protocol is cryptographer and cyber-anarchist Matthew Rosenfeld. He supposedly hails from Georgia. Details about his personal life, family and his education, if any, are not disclosed. At the same time, the media have been actively spreading the story of his success for many years. He himself cultivates the image of a free traveler, a lifestyler, who does not shackle himself with social prejudices and allegedly is not looking for gaining money.
Before settling in San Francisco, he traveled over different countries by hitchhiking and freight trains. The story goes that, realizing that he was not made for work in office, he took some of his friends, bought a derelict sailboat, and set out to conquer the ocean. According to some rumors, Rosenfeld once bought a second-hand hot air balloon and flew it aimlessly. The ball fell, and he spent a month in the desert.
While traveling, he made videos and practiced computer hacking.
In the IT community, he took the pseudonym Moxie Marlinspike. Marlinspike stands for Wire Rope Punching Pile and Moxie stands for Courage. Marlinspike’s personal site is called thoughtcrime.org according to the Orwellian term “thought crime”. For him, security is a preventive measure against “Orwellian fascism, which makes protest and civil disobedience impossible.”
Thus, he has the image of a fighter for freedom. For example, he behaves in an extravagant manner during large events, demonstrating his ingenuousness. So during the RSA security industry conference in San Francisco in 2016, among the photos of speakers in formal suits, there was a photo of Rosenfeld wearing a bicycle jersey and an 18-inch-tall helmet shaped like a giant spear of asparagus.
“It was the only picture I could find,” Marlinspike said.
Such image suits well the person who will soon gain the status of one of the main fighters for freedom and justice in the whole world.
His career had an unusually sharp rise. In 2010, a little-known Matthew, who had trouble working for any company, turns out to be a co-founder of Whisper Systems. His partner was the well-known Stuart Anderson, who has been receiving his PhD in robotic technologies in Carnegie Mellon University. Their company develops security tools for encryption, network connections, as well as backing up data on controlled devices.
Soon, the Text-Secure application, designed to protect text messages, was presented to the public. Later, there was an application for protecting voice messages, RedPhone.
Less than a year later, the company was bought by Twitter, which raised the investment round. Apparently, everything happened according to the typical scenario of a “gray” deal. Anderson collaborated with Twitter, and very quickly presented a product that he sold to his main employer.
The terms of the deal between Twitter and Whisper Systems were not disclosed.
The deal between Whisper Systems and Twitter took place when the Arab Spring erupted. At this time, Twitter became the main communication tool for the masses in Arab countries. Activists used Facebook to organize protests, Twitter to spread information, and YouTube to present their ideas to the world.
Such concepts as “twitter revolution” and “revolution through social networks” entered the scientific society exactly after the Arab spring.
It was during this time that Whisper Systems rushed an international edition of the previously U.S.-only products to market specifically for Egyptian users. As a result, Whisper’s products played an important role in the most dangerous events during the Revolution in Egypt; users relied on the software to make encrypted phone calls and to anonymously post in Twitter.
Right after the company’s purchase, RedPhone service disappeared – just after weeks of intense violence in Egypt.
Unusually, Twitter gave the free software status to the newly purchased patent. Rosenfeld continued according to the plan: he registers the Open Whisper System and continues his work on TextSecure. Such deals are not typical for Silicon Valley tech startups.
According to Twitter, “plan is to open Whisper Systems’ code over the coming months, starting with TextSecure. This will be an iterative release process, as we make sure the code meets legal requirements and is consumable by the open source community. ”
For funding, Matthew Rosenfeld turned to Dan Meredith, the head of the Open Technology Fund, who allocated about $ 500,000 in the first year and then another $ 2 million. Curiously, Meredith previously headed the security department of Al Jazeera television, journalists used Marlinspike’s products during the Arab Spring.
TextSecure quickly gained widespread popularity. Following Facebook, WhatsApp began to use Rosenfeld’s technology. In early 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $ 19 billion. The terms of the deal also remain undisclosed and covered by rumors. The WhatsApp’s founders are believed to have received options in Facebook shares.
It is during this period that both campaigns got into trouble. From 2015 to 2017 WhatsApp has been permanently accused of illegal use of personal data of its users and violation of the boundaries of information exchange with the parent company.
The European Commission fined Facebook 110 million and the case got serious. There was a risk of collapse of the tech giant’s monopoly.
Thereafter, a major shift took place in the company’s directorate. A few months after, one of the founders of Whatsapp, Brian Acton, ostentatiously left Facebook. He does this for “ideological reasons”, leaving most of his warrant under the terms of the contract. At that time, it was about $ 850 million in shares. He explained his decision by his desire to move to the non-profit sector.
Later, in March 2018, when a public scandal erupted over the leakage of Facebook user data to Cambridge Analytica, Brian posted a tweet that instantly became a virus: “It’s time … #deletefacebook “.
After leaving WhatsApp, he allegedly hurled all his effort into creating a new messenger, and in 2018 he founded the Signal Foundation. Rosenfeld was invited as a co-founder, and his TextSecure and RedPhone were used to encrypt data.
Soon, Signal Foundation will present a new secure messenger Signal.
To create it, Brian Acton invests a certain amount, but the only source who put them there was he himself.
In just a couple of years of existence, the Signal has become quite popular. For example, it was actively used during the protests in Hong Kong.
“We created Signal to completely avoid storing any confidential information, I can go on stage in front of thousands of people and publicly publish all my account details without revealing anything other than how long I use Signal (since I last changed my phone) and the last date I used it (today, by the way), ” says Moxie Marlinspike.
The messenger uses so-called “end-to-end” or end-to-end encryption for all chats, which ensures access to the contents of the correspondence only for its participants – even the messenger’s team or the telecom operator cannot intercept the data. The Signal protocol can be used to provide end-to-end encryption for voice calls, video calls, and instant messaging.
Most services have sacrificed some of the security provided by this protocol for convenience, such as the ability to add a keyboard with GIFs and other similar tools.
On the other hand, Signal has gained its popularity thanks to the developer’s successful marketing strategy, positioning it as a confidential messenger.
A successful marketing move was the opening of the Signal source code, which is available to anyone for auditing. Everyone can check that there are no backdoors in the code, which are deliberately embedded by developers to gain access to personal data.
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The Signal Foundation is an NGO, so the software was and will remain free.
“Our mission is to improve online privacy, so we publish our technology and share knowledge to encourage other companies to use it in their own products and services,” writes the kindest person, Moxie Marlinspike.
However, this NGO benefits not only the humanity, but also its founders, while simultaneously solving the issue of taxes, allowing to withdraw funds through it for founders’ own needs. At the same time, it completely anonymizes the sponsors. The Acton’s $ 105 million basically invested in Signal is officially considered a loan, which is paid from the reported funds of other sponsors.
Facebook benefits from offering WhatsApp to more gullible users and Signal to more exigent ones.
It turned out that there were gaps in the Signal protocol as well.
At the end of 2020, information appeared that the Signal protocol was attacked and the data of users who had once left WhatsApp got public. The Signal claimed the manipulation of information as an explanation. Also, a couple of years ago, it turned out that when switching from Signal as an extension for the Chrome browser to the desktop version, the messenger puts all the correspondence in unencrypted form along with all attachments on the user’s device’s disk.
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