— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 7, 2021
Elon Musk has a habit of sparking fires on Twitter. His latest suggestion to ‘Use Signal’ might have confused a few people – what is it, and why should I 'use' it?
Signal is, in short, a messaging app for people who are concerned about privacy: once-upon-a-time a concern of small group of techies, but now something that most people have good grounds to start taking seriously.
Whenever you interact with anything – or anyone – online, some data is being passed round the internet; and some of that data can be personally identifiable to you. In practice, we trust this data to be handled well by the various companies that build these apps. An iPhone built by Apple makes a big deal out of privacy when you launch it – equally so does Facebook when you install the app. All of these apps claim to ‘protect your privacy’ – but when you dig beneath the surface there’s more than meets the eye.
For the big tech companies – Facebook, Apple and Google, ‘privacy’ is becoming even more important. It has the potential to make or break their entire business.
Take WhatsApp, for example. It’s a service used by over 1.5 billion users. While using the app, you might not be aware that Facebook (who own WhatsApp) is feasting on all the following data which you provide when consenting to their terms of usage: your purchase history, location, contact info, pictures, videos, user id, advertising data, whether you’ve interacted with any adverts, your contacts, your financial info, your email address and phone number… the list goes on. Of course, the data is all securely stored. But security is not the concern here – all that data is shared with Facebook and sold on to advertisers. That means that anything you’ve ever shared – incriminating or otherwise – can be used by advertisers to target you and people you have spoken to.
Compare WhatsApp with ‘Messages’ (formerly iMessage), the messaging app that ships with every Apple product. Messages stores just your email address, phone number, Search History and Device ID – arguably the bare minimum for a messaging service.
But it would appear Signal goes one step further. It’s one of the first messaging apps that claims to hold absolutely zero data about you. Added to that, it’s actually a very easy-to-use app with a lovely interface that will make any user feel right at home. It’s fast, user-friendly and packed full of all the same features that you’re used to on WhatsApp – but without the same security considerations. Even when compared with Apple’s Messages it stands out – the latter has tried to make many strides in recent years to keep up with the competition, but still falls slightly behind.
When compared to the market – primarily WhatsApp and iMessage, but also including FaceBook Messenger, which stands in its own hall-of-fame of bad data practices – Signal is a real contender. In this day and age, so much more of our activity is taken online. Even those who lived under a rock at the beginning of 2020 are now Zoom-ing and WhatsApp-ing away with friends and colleagues like never before. So if you’re still using WhatsApp or, worse still, Facebook Messenger, it might be time to take a little of Elon Musk’s advice, and give Signal a try.