Signal Blocked by Iran as Encrypted Messaging App's Popularity Explodes

Illustration for article titled Signal Blocked by Iran as Encrypted Messaging App's Popularity Explodes
Photo: Damien Meyer (Getty Images)

With great popularity comes great scrutiny. Following WhatsApp’s controversial announcement of changes to its privacy policy, users have flocked to the encrypted messaging app Signal. The app has maintained a relatively small userbase for years, but in the last month, it has reportedly doubled in size. And now it’s attracted the attention of government regulators in Iran.

Al Jazeera reports that Signal users in Iran began to report difficulties connecting to the app on Monday. It doesn’t appear that authorities have commented publicly on the matter, but Iranian outlet Peivast claims that the government’s working group dedicated to determining which online content gets filtered has cut off Signal. Earlier this month, the committee determined that the app should be classified as “criminal content” and removed from app stores in the country.

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In a tweet responding to the blockage, Signal said that it has been “working around” the Iranian government’s censorship and that authorities are dropping all traffic from the app. “Iranian people deserve privacy,” Signal wrote. “We haven’t given up.” The company did not immediately return a request for comment.

Signal’s sudden rise to the top of app stores around the globe coincides with the aforementioned privacy change announcement at WhatsApp and the right-wing social network Parler’s struggles to stay online. There’s a huge difference between those networks in userbase and purpose, but their recent troubles have created a calling card for Signal as WhatsApp’s huge international audience seeks greater privacy controls and Parler’s users are getting a crash course in the importance of infosec as many of them are arrested in connection with the Capitol Hill riot.

Now, Signal is facing internal concerns over its own potential to be used for nefarious activities. Signal is as hands-off with users’ encrypted data as it can be. It’s a non-profit, and its code is independently peer-reviewed. These principles have been its foundation for providing people with the right to communicate without anyone looking over its shoulder. But on Tuesday, The Verge reported that the rapid addition of new features like group messaging has caused some Signal employees to worry that it could find itself with serious moderation issues and no way to moderate.

That’s a conundrum. The fact is, Apple’s iMessage can encrypt your chats in transit and on its servers, making it not all that different from Signal. That means it doesn’t moderate iMessage, but it does work with law enforcement to provide the relatively small amount of unencrypted data that it does have available on a user. And Apple has been a vocal defender of encryption against attempts by world governments to weaken encryption. And rightly so—weak encryption makes us all less safe.

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But Apple booted Parler from its app store for failure to moderate its platform that was demonstrably filled with calls to violence and the organizing of illegal activity. Again, there’s a difference between a social network and an encrypted messaging app, but shareable group chats make that difference increasingly murky. Signal’s employees fear that a failure to have a moderation plan could invite attention that harms the encryption debate overall.

Signal founder CEO Moxie Marlinspike told the Verge that his company is continuing to iterate on the app and add features to attract users, but he’s willing to change or eliminate group chats completely if the platform is abused.

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At the end of the day, Signal is growing up, and it’s happening in a much more complicated time than the one in which it was born.

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DISCUSSION

Tebow Kneeled First

There is a huge difference between Facebook and Signal in terms of how communication and content works. The moderation comes down to issues of “can’t” and “won’t”.

Signal is designed not to be moderated. That is the core of what it is: secure communication. Facebook is content that everyone can see and access. One "can't" moderate, the other just doesn't want to because that would be too much work.