SMS is old, clunky, and not secure. RCS will be prettier, but still won’t be secure. That is, it won’t have true end-to-end encryption(E2EE) by default. Apple’s Messages have E2EE by default (between Apple devices), but Apple holds the keys. WhatsApp has E2EE, but ever since it was bought by Facebook, it can’t be considered private – and it’s about to get even worse. If you want to see just how bad, have a look at this comparison.
The gold standard, hands down, is Signal. I’ve used it for years. Edward Snowden uses it. It’s time for the rest of you to get on board and switch to Signal. Seriously… even if you’re not sure if you’ll use it, just bite the bullet now and install it. If you care at all about privacy, you need to support this app – even if you don’t think you’ll use it much.
Signal will not only do one-to-one text messaging, it can also do group chats, audio and video calls – even multi-party calls. All fully end-to-end encrypted. It also has some cool privacy features like disappearing messages, view-once messages and screen lock.
(NOTE: As EFF points out, there are many things to consider when choosing a secure messaging app. If your safety depends on this app, give this a read.)
The one thing SMS has going for it is that it’s an open standard that’s supported by just about every cell phone and cell service on the planet. SMS is to messaging what email is to … well, email. But like email, it doesn’t have privacy and security baked in, and it’s hard to bolt it on afterward.
However, what that means is that everyone you want to message with also has to use Signal. And that’s why everyone uses WhatsApp… because that’s the app everyone else has, too. But we can – and must – change that.
Start with the mobile app – go ahead and download it now using the links above.
Register Your Mobile Number
When you first launch Signal on your mobile phone, it will ask you to register your mobile phone number. It will send you an SMS message to verify that you “own” that number. (You can also request a phone call, if you can’t receive SMS messages for some reason. You do have to try SMS first and let it time out to see the call option.)
The upside to this is that you will instantly know who else in your contact list also has Signal installed. And it means that Signal (the company) doesn’t have to know anything about your friend list. The downside is that it’s harder to be anonymous on Signal. (If you care to know, there are plans to allow other options and there are also some workarounds.)
Set Up the Signal Desktop App
Maybe you’re one of those people who love typing on a small screen with your thumbs (aka, “young”), but not me. I’m so good at typing on a computer keyboard now that I can do it way faster than I can write. And for much longer periods of time. My hand cramps if I have to write more than a page using a pen or pencil. I can type for hours. So… I strongly prefer to use the desktop Signal app.
Make sure Signal is up and working on your mobile phone first, Then, on your desktop computer, download the Mac app or PC app. Once installed, launch the Signal desktop app. You will be shown a big QR code. To finish setting up the desktop app, all you need to do is scan this code using the smartphone app.
To do that, open the Signal app on your smartphone. Go to your Signal settings and click on “Linked Devices”. On Android, click the “+” button; on iPhone or iPad, click “Link New Device”. (If necessary, give the Signal app permission to access your camera.) Just point your smartphone at the QR code on your desktop’s computer screen. Boom! That’s it. Easy peasy.
The next thing you really need to do now is to help your friends and family switch to Signal, too. If they’re savvy enough, you can just send them this article; if not, then frankly, without your help, they’ll be stuck with something that will abuse their privacy. Help them switch to Signal. I’m trying to avoid hyperbole here, but it really is in everyone’s best interest. Like, in society’s best interest. Nay, humanity’s! (Fine, so I failed to remain non-hyperbolic.)
The Signal website has lots of tutorials and help for its basic features. Here are some other great articles you can check out:
- EFF: How to Use Signal for iOS or Android
- Wired: How to Use Signal Encrypted Messaging
- Signal, the secure messaging app: A guide for beginners
Well, you’ve made it this far, so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you do actually care about privacy. But privacy is bigger than you – it’s a human right and it’s crucial for democratic society. Don’t believe me? Check out this TED Talk from Glenn Greenwald or this essay by Bruce Schneier.
And if you do truly care, then you need to support the cause. Consider donating some money to the Signal Foundation (they’re a non-profit organization). If you’re feeling especially generous, give to other great orgs, too.
UPDATE: This is a nice guide for “hardening” Signal.
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