In recent days there have been murmurings of discontent around the internet about Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram, along with increasingly frequent mentions of a messaging application called “Signal”. I thought it might be worth exploring why and how Signal came to be, and why we should consider it.

A short history of the social internet

In 2011 Google launched Google+. While ultimately unsuccessful, it's emergence set off a domino-topple of sorts throughout the "social internet" - with organisations acquiring one other in a race to either absorb each other's user-base or to prevent others doing the same.

First Facebook acquired Instagram. While journalists speculated that the 2012 deal removed a competitor, it later transpired Facebook were more worried about the rise of Twitter - who had also tried to acquire Instagram.

Two years later, Facebook acquired WhatsApp - largely to gain access to a younger demographic than Facebook's typical users. At the time Facebook promised to keep the two applications and their data separate - one of the co-founders of WhatsApp went as far as assuring reporters that WhatsApp would remain independent and autonomous.

That's not what happened though.

Over time, little by little, Facebook backtracked on their assurances. The tentacles of the mothership slowly but surely wound their way into it's adopted children. While we will never know for certain, you might argue that the slow exodus of the founders of Instagram and WhatsApp from Facebook has been a sign of their discontent with the status quo.

Three become one

Last year we began to see news releases from Facebook that messaging capabilities between Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp would begin to align - that functionality available in Facebook Messenger would begin to appear in the other services.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this really means moves are afoot to merge the messaging back-ends behind the Facebook properties - to run one service instead of three. It makes sense from an engineering and a commercial point of view. There's only one problem - most users don't care about engineering or commerce - they care about privacy.

Are messages more private than posts?

While most people seem happy enough letting Facebook robots sift through posts to friends, acquaintances, and groups, they don't seem so happy with any sort of electronic brain reading their "private" messages.

It's a bit odd really - probably stoked by misinformation about how Facebook use the information people share within their social network. I remember watching Mark Zuckerberg being questioned by the US Senate a couple of years ago, and being stunned that senator after senator didn't seem to understand that Facebook doesn't sell private information - it sells the opportunity to target adverts against indicators derived from private information.

It's just conversations though, isn't it?

I don't think many people understand the depth of data recorded by social networks.

When we talk about data, we're not just talking about your friends, and your conversations - we're talking about what you said, when you said it, where you were when you said it, who you said it to, and all of the information that can be derived from that - your likes, dislikes, political leanings, triggers, strengths, weaknesses, moods, relationships... it's no accident that so much effort has gone into artificial intelligence work around sentiment.

It's not just used for advertising

While Facebook indirectly sells access to you, filling your feed with uncannily accurate advertising, they also filter, sort, and prune the information shared by your peers based on your perceived preferences - based on who you tend to interact with, what sorts of content you tend to engage with, and what subjects tend to attract you.

The unfortunate side-effect of the algorithmic timeline is that people become surrounded by concordant views - and are fooled into thinking their values, opinions, and beliefs are shared by the majority. Rumour and fact become blurred, and baseless conspiracy theories become amplified and validated.

The emergence of an alternative

Over the last several years the open-source messaging application "Signal" emerged, with somewhat of a chequered early history - which perhaps makes its story worth telling too.

Ten years ago a company called "Whisper Systems" built an encrypted text messaging application, and a secure voice call application. Whisper was acquired by Twitter in 2011 - primarily an acquisition of skills to improve the Twitter platform (many forget how poorly built Twitter was in its early years).

Two years later, one of the founders of Whisper Systems left Twitter, and founded "Open Whisper Systems" - and continued working on methods of encryption for messaging on the internet. The result of this work - the "TextSecure Protocol" is now known as the "Signal Protocol".

Arrival on the world stage

A change to the terms and conditions of WhatsApp in early 2021 has fueled an explosion of interest in "Signal". The change essentially means that for many countries around the world, users of WhatsApp have to agree that data from WhatsApp will be shared with Facebook. This has understandably caused a certain amount of uproar.

People are suddenly writing and talking not only about Facebook, but also about Signal.

While Edward Snowden advertised Signal's existence several years ago, and the technology community has been aware of it all along, perhaps it took Elon Musk to really propel it into the "collective consciousness" of the internet with a somewhat random tweet this week.

Transparency is everything

The important part of this story isn't really who, or when - it's what and how.

The Signal Messenger source code is open source. This means the programming is available to anybody to look at, pick to pieces, and copy if they wish. There is no secret behind how Signal works, and what it shares between its users and the servers that facilitate communication. The development community has collectively embraced it, reviewed it, and improved it.

Signal has rapidly become the "gold standard" in terms of the implementation of security and privacy within a mobile application - and has been advocated by the likes of Edward Snowden, and Jack Dorsey.

Simple, private, and powerful

In terms of basic use, the Signal messaging application works in the same way as many other apps - using your contact list to establish a connection with other users of the app. If somebody hasn't got your mobile phone number in their contacts, they can't message you.

All conversations within the Signal application are encrypted from peer to peer using public-key cryptography - meaning that messages can only be decrypted by their recipients - no part of any messages intercepted en-route can be decoded, including the sender or the recipient's identities.

A recommendation

If you're not happy about the way Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram handle your data, go and take a look at the Signal website, and download the app onto your phone. It will cost you nothing - it's free to use. Don't take my word for it - make up your own mind.