Signal: the auto-deleting messaging app ministers are accused of downloading

·2-min read
Secret messaging on a smartphone (PA Archive)
Secret messaging on a smartphone (PA Archive)

Do you think that Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel use Signal, the encrypted messaging service where texts and pictures can be set to disappear, to share mean memes about Matt Hancock?

There are important questions to answer surrounding the use of auto-deleting messaging apps ministers, from the implications for Freedom of Information requests to security concerns over senior members of the Government carrying state functions on personal devices.

Indeed, the Government may yet face a legal challenge over its use of such technologies after it was reported in The Times that a number of ministers, including Boris Johnson, have Signal accounts connected to their numbers.

Coming in the wake of allegations that the former Health Secretary and parkour enthusiast used a private Gmail account for some official business, the Government faces the accusation it shows a flagrant disregard for its own rules on transparency.

This appears also to be an issue north of the border, as several SNP ministers have also been linked to the app in the same way.

Signal started life in 2014 as a small-scale alternative to the behemoth messaging services such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp (acquired by Facebook in 2014). It has seen spectacular growth and as of January this year, it had more than 105 million total downloads and roughly 40 million monthly active users.

Signal stores messages on locally a user’s device, which should mean that the only person who has access to those messages are the user of the device.

Its option to choose a custom time to auto-delete messages – between seconds and four weeks – has made it popular with those seeking additional security measures beyond end-to-end encryption, such as journalists talking to sources.

But it has also proved controversial, having been accused of being a safe space for violent political movements, and encrypted apps such as Signal and Telegram have grown more popular still in the wake of the US Captol Building attack in January.

Other alternatives to WhatsApp:

  • Telegram – a cross-platform messaging app with 500 million monthly active users

  • Snapchat – a messaging app that allows users to swap pictures and videos that then disappear

  • WeChat – known as China’s ‘everything app’, a multi-purpose service that includes messaging, social media and mobile payments.

  • iMessage – Apple’s instant messaging service which uses data rather than SMS

  • Viber – another cross-platform messaging app offering end-to-end encryption.

  • (Actually talking face-to-face)

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