Signal, the encrypted messaging app that comes with an Edward Snowden endorsement, has seen a 400% increase in daily downloads since Donald Trump won the presidency.
“There has never been a single event that has resulted in this kind of sustained, day-over-day increase,” Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of Open Whisper Systems, the software nonprofit behind Signal, told BuzzFeed News. Marlinspike interpreted the jump as a reaction to Trump’s win, and anxiety over the future of US surveillance.
The secure communications tool is well-known in technologists, journalists, and political activists’ circles. It allows people to text and speak with one another using what’s known as end-to-end encryption, meaning only the sender and their intended recipient can read or hear the message.
“Trump is about to be put in control of the most pervasive, largest, and least accountable surveillance infrastructure in the world,” Marlinspike said. “People are maybe a little bit uncomfortable with him.”
While Signal does not publicize the number of people who use it to communicate, its user base is in the millions, Marlinspike said. The Google Play store lists Signal’s total Android downloads at between 1 and 5 million. The app is also available on iOS and on desktop through Google Chrome.
Conversations that are end-to-end–encrypted protect individuals from the prying eyes of hackers and even from the communication platforms themselves. As this year’s intense legal between Apple and the FBI showed, companies that offer end-to-end encryption can’t read or produce the conversations of their customers, even when courts order them to.
Marlinspike, whose organization aims to make encrypted communications simple to use and ubiquitous, said some people might be installing Signal out of fear, while others are downloading it to protect vulnerable people who might be targeted by the government.
Bruce Schneier, a prominent security expert, told BuzzFeed News he thinks more people are installing Signal because they are afraid their communications will be intercepted and read by others. “Privacy is essential to liberty and human dignity, and encryption is one tool for maintaining privacy,” he said.
But the wider adoption of encryption is crucial to its success. “It's important that we all use it,” Schneier said. "If only political dissidents use encryption, then they can be identified in that way."
In an op-ed calling for expanding US surveillance programs, Trump’s pick for CIA director, Kansas Representative Mike Pompeo, suggested that merely using secure encryption tools may call the attention of counterterrorism officials. “[T]he use of strong encryption in personal communications may itself be a red flag,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in January. In the same essay, Pompeo defended the government’s ability to search Americans without a warrant, and the surveillance of social media posts.
“I think there's a lot of fear, given Trump's alarming statements about surveillance and his penchant for revenge, that he will attempt to use surveillance to crush dissent and stifle journalism,” Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, told BuzzFeed News.
Trump’s combative posture against the news media has concerned many journalists, whose work relies on collecting sensitive information and protecting the identities of sources. Timm said conversations journalists have can be used by the government to identify and prosecute whistleblowers, and that reporters’ emails and phone calls have ended up in indictments brought on by the Obama administration. For Timm, encryption has never been more important.
“Since the election, our proverbial phone has been ringing off the hook from journalists who now see learning how to encrypt their communications and practice better operational security as urgent,” Timm said. “We're definitely going to be extremely busy in the coming months.”
Using the same technology that powers the Signal app, Google, Facebook, and WhatsApp have each released their own end-to-end–encrypted messaging service this year. US law enforcement officials aren’t happy about this and have described the rise of secure communications platforms as an obstacle to their ability to thwart crime and terrorism. But the prevailing view among Silicon Valley executives, computer scientists, and security experts is that encryption is a crucial defense against an onslaught of criminal hacks, seemingly endless data breaches, and invasive government surveillance.
During the election, Hillary Clinton’s email controversy and the steady drip of WikiLeaks documents underscored the need for more secure messaging tools in a time when relying on a permanent and searchable database of one’s correspondence can easily lead to exposure, embarrassment, and harm.
Mike Janke, the chairman of Silent Circle, a secure messaging platform that sells a suite of communication products to businesses around the world, told BuzzFeed News that sales increased 200% during the 45-day period leading up to the election, after which sales leveled out. “We just know there was a lot of anxiety,” he said, describing the “unusual uptick” as caused by “something that happened in the world that creates a temporary super-spike.” He added, “This just happened to be the American election.” In the past, sales upticks at Silent Circle have been triggered by news coverage of UK surveillance programs, and, on an even greater scale, the Snowden revelations.
On the campaign trail, Trump sided with the Justice Department in its fierce dispute with Apple over gaining access to an encrypted iPhone, and he called for a boycott of Apple products until the company agreed to circumvent its own security features. At times, Trump has pushed for increased surveillance of Americans, including monitoring mosques. And during a CNN debate, he said, “[W]e should be able to penetrate the internet and find out exactly where ISIS is.” Some in the tech industry see the new administration as a threat to their businesses and to the privacy of their users, since the data they collect about customers could be used against them.
Speaking about the potential for the encryption debate to surface once again in Washington, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa told BuzzFeed News, “Our nation’s liberties are more important than our nation’s security alone.”
“We learned from the Patriot Act that things done in haste, or things done for security only — particularly when law enforcement says ‘give us all these additional tools’ — will seldom make you significantly safer,” he said.
While the Obama administration presented conflicting and contradictory positions on encryption, it’s possible Trump would seek to undermine the technology behind Signal and other secure communication apps through legislation or future court battles initiated by the Justice Department.
“It is troubling that President-elect Donald Trump has appointed some people that seem to have an over-broad view of governmental powers when it comes to surveillance,” Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu told BuzzFeed News. “And it is my hope that the new administration respects the Fourth Amendment and respects the importance of encryption — both for the government as well as for private individuals.”
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
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