Pando

When John Podesta is using Signal, it's safe to say it has gone mainstream

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on February 14, 2017

From The Security Desk

For the longest time, privacy and security nerds activists folks have been anticipating the product that brings encryption to the masses.

That is, the product which makes keeping your communications and Internet activity as user-friendly as sending an email or catching a Pokemon.

On stage at Battelle’s ShiftForum last week, a prominent VC (who I can’t name because the event was held under Chatham House Rules) shared his bullishness on the prospect an easy, secure communications tool that isn’t controlled by “ a giant corporation.” Specifically, something that isn’t Facebook-owned Whatsapp. Apparently oblivious to the irony, he predicted that such a tool would itself become a huge company.

Still, you only had to stick around for a few more panels to realize that the nameless VC was absolutely right. The next huge startup is a user-friendly encryption tool. And it’s called Signal.

Of course, as a Pando reader you’re already familiar with Signal. You likely already use it. (You might also have read Yasha Levine’s piece on why tools like Signal and Tor might not be as safe as they first appear.)

What you mightn’t know (unless you work in the security sector) is how mainstream the service has already become. Like Slack did for enterprise communications, so Signal has almost overnight transformed from techie’s fetish object to the thing your dad is asking about.

Speaking on another ShiftForum panel, this one on the record, John Podesta discussed the fall-out from his Russian email hacking scandal. Specifically, he talked about how he had now moved all of his communications to Signal. Moderator John Heilmann agreed and said that most of his sources inside the government (and former government) now insisted on communication with him via Signal. With all due respect to Podesta, when a guy who can’t secure his Gmail is able to understand Signal then it’s safe to say it passes the “for the masses” test.

On still another panel, former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett also cited Signal as a tool used by everyone in Washington. The comment was greeted by nods and murmurs throughout the audience of techies and politicos. More than a couple others could be seen reaching for their devices, presumably to search for this magical app.

Once you start looking, you’ll see Signal everywhere. You’ll see it in the New York Times coverage of the Trump White House where anonymous National Security staffers tell the Times that they’ve “turned to encrypted communications” to prevent Trump loyalists from monitoring their conversations. Per Heilmann, the preferred communications tool is Signal.

It is both remarkable and impressive that an Open Source communications tool, whose parent company Open Whisper Systems  lists just five staff members on its home page, has quietly become the tool of choice for the entire Washington political and journalism establishment. (Of course, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin deserve some of the credit too.) Signal was already the preferred secure chat tool for Silicon Valley and, so I’m told, it’s quickly spreading through the (encrypted) chattering classes of New York and London. There’s no reason to think it won’t continue to spread, especially as the Trump presidency really gets started on crushing civil liberties.

The question, then, is what happens next. What happens when Open Whisper Systems becomes the large organization it seems destined to be. One possible clue can be found in the history of Open Whisper Systems, which grew out of an earlier company called Whisper Systems. That company was acquired by Twitter in 2011. Twitter ultimately open sourced the company’s communications system and founder Moxie Marlinspike used the code as the basis of Open Whisper Systems. At the time, the Wall Street Journal quoted Marlinspike’s justification for selling to Twitter to provide the resources that would “help the then-startup improve its security."

It’s not hard to imagine Open Whisper Systems facing a similar need for resources as Signal continues to become the main highway for all of America’s most sensitive conversations. A crowdfunding campaign for Signal, hosted by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, currently stands just shy of $15k (of a $100k target) -- barely enough to cover the cost of fighting the subpoenas that encrypted chat tools routinely attract.   

When that financial need really starts to bite, and when those evil giant corporations come calling offering to acquire Signal for the same kind of price Facebook paid for Whatsapp, it’ll surely be a very very tough “no” to deliver. Where exactly is the balance between trusting a giant tech corporation (particularly one like Facebook or Google that’s on friendly terms with Trump) vs the importance of allowing Signal to keep scaling.

Given the company’s Slack-like growth, and absent some insanely generous gift from someone like Pierre Omidyar (which would bring its own set of concerns) I suspect we’re going to get an answer to that dilemma sooner rather than later.