Signal Is the Messaging App of the Protests

“I stood in front of a crowd of a few thousand people the other day and told them to wear as nondescript clothing as possible,” said Lilith Sinclair, 25, an Afro-Indigenous organizer who lives in Portland, Ore.

Conversations about privacy and data security have only recently come to the fore. Once, to many Americans, government surveillance felt like something that only happened in other countries. (In reality, the U.S. government has a long history of observing and tracking American citizens.) But after the Patriot Act permitted warrantless wiretapping in 2001 and Edward Snowden leaked information from the National Security Agency in 2013, awareness of mass surveillance has grown.

In recent years, downloads of Signal have spiked during times of national anxiety and unrest. The first few months after the 2016 election were a busy time for Signal, according to data from the tracking firm Apptopia. Downloads were high on Election Day (Nov. 8, 2016), Inauguration Day (Jan. 21, 2017) and the day of the Women’s March (Jan. 22, 2017).

Downloads also rose on Dec. 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. Ruba Abu-Salma, who recently completed her doctorate in computer science at University College London, studied Telegram, an encrypted messaging app used widely in the Hong Kong protests. She found that the apps people use to communicate are largely determined by their social group.

“If your peers and your colleagues and your family members are using a messaging application, you will end up using that messaging app, even if you perceive it as insecure,” Dr. Abu-Salma said. “The primary goal to use a communication app is to communicate with people.”

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