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What is Signal and how do you sign up for it?

Want more security and privacy with your messages? This might be the answer.

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Image: KnowTechie

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You might have seen Facebook in the headlines again recently. This time, it’s not for the minimal efforts taken to reduce questionable content. Nor is it about the fact that Facebook announced it was going to stop political ads – after the US election was over.

No, Facebook was in the news recently because it rolled out new terms of service for WhatsApp. Where you can only use the app if you also agree to give certain information to Facebook. Understandably, this pissed a lot of people off, and there’s been a hunt for a new messaging service. One that isn’t so gung-ho about knowing everything about you. Enter Signal.

What is Signal?

Released way back in 2013, Signal is a secure messaging app. Not just “secure, but really your data is being given to anyone who wants it,” but actually secure. All messages from one-to-one chats to group messages, file transfers, images, videos, and even phone calls are end-to-end encrypted between the individual devices using the app.

The developer, Signal Foundation, even created its own encryption protocol to ensure the highest level of security. Basically, even if it wanted to, Signal wouldn’t be able to see the messages sent between you and anybody else.

This insane amount of protection means Signal is a great alternative to iMessage, Skype, Facebook Messenger, and even traditional SMS messages. All you need to sign up is a phone number. This is your identifier, and what makes it possible to use the service. The app will ask for access to see the contacts in your phone, but it won’t retain anything or share the information. These details are just used to see who else in your address book also uses Signal.

Why are so many people going to Signal?

mark zuckerberg up in flames
Image: KnowTechie

Basically, they’re sick of Zuckerberg’s shit. Facebook swings its dick near practically everything you do on your phone these days. It’s got Instagram. It’s got Facebook Messenger, obviously. In February 2014, it also picked up WhatsApp. For $19 billion.

Anyway, the acquisition of WhatsApp was fairly innocent at first. Just another steady stream of income. But recently, WhatsApp’s terms of service have changed. You used to be able to opt-out of sharing your information with Facebook. Now, that’s no longer possible. Either give Facebook the rights to collect and share your information with its family of companies, or you can’t use WhatsApp.

That said, it should be noted that the most recent updates to WhatsApp pertain to businesses, but still, it’s not nearly as private as Signal.

Not only can your conversations be stored within Facebook’s infrastructure (even in an encrypted form), but you also have to hand over permission to collect user phone numbers (both yours and the people stored in your address book), along with profile names, profile pictures, and when you were last online. Maybe your first-born, too. There’s nothing that explicitly says your ankle biters won’t be procured, at least. So a lot of people are jumping ship.

Fleeing Facebook

While the app was initially released in 2013, it took Elon Musk and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey singing Signal’s praises to really put it in the spotlight. Since then, Signal has completely dominated the charts on both Apple and Google’s app stores. Bear in mind the app charts are usually filled with free-to-play games and social media (ie Facebook and Instagram), so to see something like this capturing the attention is massive.

 A random, yet hilarious, side story also saw a completely different company – Signal Advance Inc – experiencing a 5,675% surge in their stock after Musk’s tweet. This isn’t just a different company though, it’s a totally different sector. Signal Advance Inc is a medical company. Signal Foundation, the developer of the app, isn’t even publicly traded, so there’s no way to buy shares for it.

It doesn’t seem like Facebook’s mass exodus is just about the privacy side of things, either. The social giant has long been criticized for how it handles issues. Left-leaning users are often unhappy at the lax approach taken to potentially offensive subjects. Those on the opposite side of the fence, along with anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and other conspiracy theorists, feel they – and therefore the ‘truth’ – are being censored. It’s led to a situation where nobody is happy and resulted in things like Parler having its 30 seconds of fame.

With nobody especially happy about the current situation, changing WhatApp’s terms of service like this seems to be the final straw that’s broke the camel’s back.

How to sign up for Signal

signal app screenshots
Image: KnowTechie

Download and install the app from Google Play if you’re an Android user, or the App Store if you’re on iOS. Once that’s done, setting it up is pretty easy; agree to the terms and conditions (give them a read too if you really want to), then choose whether to set up a new account or restore an old backup.

When setting up a new account, you’ll need to select your country and enter your phone number. You’ll then be sent a text message with a 6-digit verification code. Unfortunately, this is an unavoidable part of the process. Without the verification, you won’t be able to progress any further.

Signal will then prompt you to create a PIN. Try to come up with something unique, obviously. Don’t be like me and use the date you lost your virginity as you do with everything else.

How to use Signal

signal app screenshot
Image: KnowTechie

It’s pretty similar to any other messaging service, so you’ll have no trouble getting everything up and running. The first time you log in, the app will ask if you want to give it permission to see your contacts. This is optional, but no data is stored if you agree to let it happen. It’ll just populate the app with a list of contacts who also use the service.

Starting a new chat is as simple as clicking the pencil logo and choosing a recipient. You can also set up group chats or invite other people to use the service from this screen.

The settings are as in-depth as you’d expect from an app that prides itself on privacy. You can choose whether to lock access when locking your screen. It also lets you decide if screenshots are allowed when you’re in the app or not. When testing this out though, it only blocks screenshots on your end, not from the other side, so you won’t be able to stop someone else from saving your chat with them.

You can decide whether to back up your chats and set up a specific folder in your phone’s memory to do this. Other options include the ability to set conversation lengths, and how long messages are kept.

It’s incredible how seriously Signal takes your confidentiality. Not only does it not store any data about you or your use on its servers, but it lets you really drill down the finer points of your online safety. If you want messages to disappear after a certain amount of time, you can do this within each individual chat. If you want to avoid man-in-the-middle attacks, just verify the chat’s safety number with the other person.

Is it worth using?

Absolutely. There aren’t many communication apps out there that are so useful, so private, and so impressive in their functionality. Especially not ones that are completely free.

It’s not even being run for profit; Signal Foundation just cares about your privacy and security online. It doesn’t want to obtain or sell your data. It doesn’t want to target you with weirdly specific ads, either. Signal just wants you to be confident that you can send and receive messages in a safe, secure way.

WhatsApp may have the bigger install base at the moment, but if things continue the way they are, there’s no reason Signal can’t usurp the crown.

Have any thoughts on this? Plan on trying out Signal? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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A gamer since I've been able to hold a controller, I can usually be found with a PlayStation, Xbox or Switch controller in my hand.

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