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Signal Downloads Are Way Up Since the Protests Began amid Pandemic

June 23, 2020

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Signal, the encrypted messaging app, is seeing record numbers of downloads amid the pandemic and nationwide protests.

 

As protests against police brutality have swept across the United States amid the on-going coronavirus pandemic, Americans’ app downloads have shifted. The list of most popular apps right now offers a glimpse into how people are using technology to take action and go private.
Over the last few weeks, the number of people who have downloaded Signal, an encrypted messaging & calling application, has skyrocketed. Many are using the app to organize and participate in protests against police brutality (without being spied on by law enforcement).
After the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last week, people have flocked in record numbers to police scanner apps, where they can listen in on law enforcement’s radio communication. They’ve also rushed to download Signal, a secure messaging app, and Citizen, a community safety app that sends out police alerts. Meanwhile, earlier this week, Twitter was being downloaded more than Facebook and Instagram, which normally isn’t the case. Since then Signal has been downloaded 121,000 times in the US alone, according to Apptopia. Both are continuing to set daily download records. Earlier this week, Citizen was the fourth most downloaded iOS app of any kind, according to App Annie.
Organizers have relied on Signal to devise action plans and develop strategies for handling possible arrests for several years. But as awareness of police monitoring continues to grow, protest attendees are using Signal to communicate with friends while out on the streets. The app uses end-to-end encryption, which means each message is scrambled so that it can only be deciphered by the sender and the intended recipient.
“If you don’t have end-to-end encryption, by definition, there are other parties that can read your messages,” said Joseph Bonneau, an assistant professor of computer science at New York University who has researched cryptography. “That doesn’t mean that they necessarily do, but it usually means that they can and, in particular, depending on what jurisdiction you are in, they can be ordered to by law enforcement.”
SMS texts are not encrypted, so those messages can be read easily off the servers and cell towers that transmit the data. WhatsApp is encrypted but owned by Facebook. Many activists believe the application is only as secure as Mark Zuckerberg’s convictions which we all know about.
Signal has also already been tested. In 2016, the chat service withstood a subpoena request for its data. The only information it could provide was the date the accounts in question were created and when they had last used Signal. Signal does not store messages or contacts on its servers, so it cannot be forced to give copies of that information to the government.
In addition to privacy, some users are concerned about who may profit from their use. Signal was developed by a nonprofit. “WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, so it makes money off of who is talking to whom, when,” said Bex Hong Hurwitz, 39, the founder of Tiny Gigantic, a company that works with activists and organizers to promote digital safety.
Signal also allows users to set their messages to delete after a period of time. And last week, the app introduced a “blur” tool for photographs, which can be liabilities for protesters. Many organizers suggest attendees wear nondescript clothing and face coverings, because police have identified people from protest footage.
Downloads of Signal also rose on Deember 10, 2016, when information about the Russian hacking of American political parties came to light, and in late March of 2018, as news of the Cambridge Analytica breach of Facebook data dominated the news cycle. (Moxie Marlinspike, who founded Open Whisper Systems, the nonprofit that developed Signal, declined a request for comment.)
Now, wider adoption of encrypted apps seems possible. Michael Onah, a 29-year-old attorney at the nonprofit law practice Phillips Black who represents people on death row, just downloaded the app last week, after his friends and colleagues suggested it to him. He was initially reluctant to add another app to his already-crowded phone, but the ongoing protest movement convinced him. He intends to keep using the app to communicate about sensitive information with his clients. “My responsibility in how I use my phone and how I go about my life has sort of changed,” Mr. Onah said. “People who are relying on me are in custody of the state, an entity that can really extract data from me and use it against me in this terrible way. I have a duty to them now.”
The utility of encrypted messaging apps like Signal is more straightforward. Signal is basically a messaging, calling, and video app whose encryption keeps people’s communication hidden in the event that their phones are stolen, hacked, or confiscated by police. Protesters around the world have long used these apps to communicate with one another safely and without fear of increasingly possible police interception. Signal and its UK-based competitor Telegram proved essential in the 2019 Hong Kong protests, where protesters were especially fearful about state surveillance. Some Hong Kong protesters even resorted to mesh messaging apps that work without an internet connection, though it doesn’t seem anxiety about police snooping has gotten that serious in the US yet.
Signal became one of the top 10 most downloaded social apps on iOS yesterday for the first time, according to data from App Annie & Apptopia. The app often sees spikes in downloads during tumultuous political times. Organizers and demonstrators say they feel safer communicating with end-to-end encryption.

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