Signal App Downloads Spike as the Government Starts to Intercept and Monitor Protesters’ Private Messages

During the previous week, protesters all over the United States have phased large-scale demonstrations against racism and police brutality. Throughout the same period, daily U.S. downloads of Signal, the encrypted messaging application, have tripled, new data from the mobile app analytics company SensorTower shows 

The spike in the number of downloads directly coincides with advice from Twitter users and privacy-focused organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, calling American protesters to communicate via encrypted apps like Signal. Encryption clutters the content of a message when it is being sent from a device to another, enabling users to chat with less hazard that their conversation will be tapped and monitored by a third party.  

The Government Uses All Types of Methods to Track Protesters  

“Clearly, the increased use of Signal shows a response from protesters and the population at large as a defense mechanism, reacting to the evaporation of anonymity,” said Ilia Siatitsa, a lawyer and privacy advocate at the London-based non-profit Privacy International.  

The government has deployed drones over protests in most U.S. cities, and Reuters reported that police have shamelessly used facial recognition cameras and IMSI catchers, which intercept and read text messages, at protests all over the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany. BuzzFeed also reported that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had been given broad powers to ‘conduct covert surveillance’ of people.  

In the last few years, protest organizers have used encrypted messaging to escape censorship and surveillance while sharing details about the times and locations of protests. Lebanese protesters used WhatsApp, which also ended up being a significant source of information in Venezuela. During the Hong Kong protests, organizers used Telegram, which made the government launch large-scale cyber-attacks against the communication app 

Now, Signal’s rank among other iOS App Store downloads went from 936 to 126 in the last week alone.  

Signal’s rank among overall iOS App Store downloads jumped from 936 to 126 in the past week. “Increased rankings among overall apps and games is particularly impressive as it illustrates the growth in demand for private, encrypted messaging relative to other apps and games,” said Lexi Sydow, who analyzes mobile app trends for App Annie.  

What is Signal and Why You Should Use It?  

Signal offers users a higher degree of anonymity than most of the other popular messaging apps due to the fact that besides encrypting the content of messages, it doesn’t keep metadata about the sender and recipient, when the message was sent, or the location of the participants. The app also has a tool that makes it easy to blur out faces in photographs sent via the app.  

Other encrypted communication platforms record more metadata; for instance, WhatsApp keeps a record of the person you’ve messaged and when you messaged them, while Telegram stores information about when users are online that could be employed to find out who are the participants.   

Signal and other encrypted communication apps provide users with rather limited protections because if police have access to an unlocked smartphone, they can still read any messages on it. That is why numerous security firms have recommended people over the last few weeks to use a PIN code to unlock their device because biometrics, such as Face ID and Touch ID, is of no use in blocking the government from snooping into their phones.  

Siatitsa also explained that the government has other ways to identify and monitor people long after a protest has ended, with an investigation from The Intercept revealing that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had been tracking protesters via their social media posts for a year after they organized demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. 

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