Despite being silent for the last month, I'm doing my best to keep this blog alive and trying to keep the promise to myself to write a whole lot more for the rest of the year. It didn't help that I finally contracted COVID after about two years of doing my best at avoiding every social gathering I could and living terminally online. Apparently even I need to make contact with the world once in a while, diseased doorknobs and all.
I've wanted to write about a lot of different things regarding all kinds of books I've been reading and how they all might interconnect on some level. The kinds of books you see on the New York Times bestseller list about NSA survaillance programs that middle-aged men like me eat up with a big spoon.
Nope, I thought I'd write about one of my favorite topics: encryption and privacy. I'm writing this article to convince you to do one thing and one thing only: donate to Signal and get on of those badges that goes next to your avatar.
So what are my reasons? I'm not going to lie, I've been a massive fan of Signal for some years now and I've been trying to get anyone and everyone to start using it. Despite a few hangers-on that still insist on using WhatsApp, I use Signal exclusively to communicate with people I know online. It wasn't my evangelizing that got people to make the switch though, it was the big change WhatsApp made to their ToS in 2021. Come face-to-face with what Meta truly sees their users as, data points to be sold for profit, it's amazing WhatApp is still around.
Now that Signal is slowly getting some market share, inevitably we get down to the app's existential crisis: how do you pay for all the invisible servers keeping the whole thing running without selling out your customers and their data? As the old addage goes, if a service is free, you're the product and given that Signal is a non-profit organization, there's not a whole lot that can be done to keep the data flowing. Brian Acton's 50 million dollars are probably going to help keep the lights on for a few years but relying on the kindness of billionaires should NOT be the only thing safeguarding our privacy when we speak online.
One of the unenviable jobs the new President of Signal, Meredith Whittaker, has is getting Signal's users to support the very system they use everyday while keeping the app free for those who need it but otherwise can't support it. One of the first ways Signal has been trying to get financial support from their users is by slowly rolling out badges, little icons that appear next to your avatar and show you donated money to Signal or that you make monthly donations. Recently Signal has been allowing users to donate money on the behalf of others and they receive a badge they can pin to their avatars as well.
As simple as this is, I feel badges are a very clever way to get people interested in the idea of donating to Signal. In the USA, donating money is far less of a foreign idea to many than in central and northern Europe where you sort of expect your taxes to handle most of society's major costs. Corporations have taken on the role of caretaking the internet and the planning out the kinds of services it provides. Of course the governments of the EU and the US try to provide some public version of a commonly used service once in a while. Yey when given a choice, mostly people will flock to cool, developed, commercial solutions and stay with them. And even if the EU came up with its own free version of WeChat, would you really trust it? Given the chance, the EU would backdoor the app without question.
So our we have four options:
1) Use free apps to communicate with and accept the loss of privacy as every piece of information that can be legally obtained from users will be used to sell ads and thus fund the profit-driven company developing the app.
2) Hope a government develops an app for us and upkeeps it with tax revenue, however you have to trust that they will actually not use it for mass surveillance.
3) Make your own app and use it with friends
4) Fund a non-profit alternative with donations.
If you value your privacy at all, options 1) and 2) are out for sure. If option 3) seems to be the best solution for you, just use PGP with email and cut out the messaging app altogether. A word of warning though, if you thought getting people to switch to Signal was hard, wait until you try to get someone to start using PGP signing in email. I barely had the fortitude to get it working and I'm what you'd call a 'privacy extremist'.
Given these options, I think it's time to show the world that we as a society want to value privacy and are willing to do something about it. How many article have I read about privacy abuses and how horrible "big tech" is? How many articles have you read where journalists and editors are begging the heavens for some kind of tech solution that isn't from FAANG?
This is how supporting privacy looks like: getting a stupid little badge next to your avatar. It's that simple. Maybe someone else will see it and want to join in. As I get older, I start to want to live more and more according to my principles, even if it means that I face some kind of hardship in doing so. Giving 20 bucks a month to Signal is not causing me any kind of financial stress and I'm not some guy racking in 6 figures in San Fransisco. You'll find plenty of excuses why you shouldn't donate and I understand that. I'm just saying that if we're going to do something about seeing a world that isn't all under the all-seeing Five Eyes, we're going to have to start by getting one Signal badge at a time.
I'll end this post by advertising my Signal proxy I'm running on signal.tube/#viesti.m4ra.net. I did this as a response to a community call-out by Signal to help Iranians access the service after the government started censoring Signal. It looks like the government shut down the whole internet in Iran anyway, but if it comes back I'll have a proxy waiting. This is also the kind of thing I like to see, a decentralised way to access messaging. This isn't truely decentralized yet but a step in the right direction.