[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
I hate to write a piece just saying Someone Is Wrong On The Internet. But Reid Blackman’s The Signal App and the Danger of Privacy at All Costs (in the NYTimes, forsooth) is not just wrong but dangerously misleading. I haven’t seen a compact explainer on why, so here goes.
Blackman’s description of what Signal does is accurate: Provides an extremely private communication path among individuals and groups; private to the extent that Signal.org (a nonprofit) doesn’t even know who’s talking to whom, let alone what they’re saying.
Blackman argues that this is dangerous because bad people could use it to plan nefarious activities and the legal authorities wouldn’t be able to eavesdrop on them and stop them. Indeed, bad people can and (I’m sure) do use cryptography to evade surveillance.
So, let’s agree that Signal offers an upside and a downside. Up: Your privacy is protected from snoopers, be they maleficent governments or ordinary criminals. Down: It’s hard to wiretap the bad guys.
So, can we remove the downside without doing damage? Blackman says little about that, except the phrase “Whether law enforcement should tap our phones on the condition that a warrant is obtained…”
I’m sorry to be the bearer of of bad news, but it’s simply not possible to address the downside without completely shattering the upside. Here are three reasons why.
When you say “law enforcement”, who exactly do you mean? Employees of the United States? Of Oregon? Of Crow Wing County, MN? Of Italy? Of China? How are you going to sort out the jurisdictional disputes, and how are you going to ensure that only “good” law-enforcement organizations get to snoop?
A Signal eavesdropping capability would become the Holy Grail for every global organized-crime syndicate, national-security agency, and teenage hacker from Belarus. They’re pretty smart people at Signal, but there aren’t that many of them, and in a fight between them and a world-wide army of attackers, I know who I’m betting on.
Obviously, employees of Signal would have the ability to eavesdrop on anyone, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to respond to wiretapping warrants. How much do you think various flavors of enemy and bad guy would be willing to pay for access?
Even assuming every Signal employee is unimpeachably and eternally incorruptible, suppose an employee has a loved one within the jurisdiction of a hostile foreign government. How do you think they’d react to video of that loved one being tortured, with the price for ending the torture being wiretapping help?
Blackman says “The company’s proposition that if anyone has access to data, then many unauthorized people probably will have access to that data is false.” What on earth makes him think that?!
Don’t worry, be happy · While I acknowledge that in an ideal world we’d be able to eavesdrop on bad people without shattering privacy for good ones, that’s not the world we live in. And I actually don’t think it’s that big a problem. For example, Blackman notes that in the course of the law-enforcement investigation of the January 6th insurrection, police got access to the traitors’ Signal conversations. How? Obviously, by getting into their computers or phones, where those conversations are stored.
Serious security professionals would rather hide a camera on your office wall or a keylogger in your PC than try to break the code. Or even better, get a warrant to search your computer with really serious penalties for refusal.
Also, criminal activities tend to have real-world effects, for example video of people in MAGA hats breaking into the Capitol, or (much more often) money moving around. Good law-enforcement agencies are quite accomplished at following the trail of dirty money.
So let’s acknowledge that sometimes strong privacy will slow law-enforcement down. But somehow, they seem to be able to muddle along without it.
Ideology? · Blackman makes all sorts of claims about Signal’s “ideology”, which is irrelevant, because the reality is simpler. It’s like this: Mathematicians have invented a way to communicate with extreme privacy. (It’s irrelevant whether this is good or bad at this point, the math doesn’t care.)
Privacy is a good thing, one of the benefits of being a member of a civilization. People want it and are justified in wanting it. Now they can have it. There have been no credible proposals for taking privacy away just from the bad people, and I’ll be astonished if there ever are.
Signal · It’s not the only end-to-end encrypted way to communicate, especially since they make their technology available to other organizations, including WhatsApp.
But while I have your attention, I do recommend Signal. I and my family and most of my friends and quite a few of my colleagues more or less live in Signal. It’s a really great piece of software. And privacy is good.