Sending a signal

Imagine if the privacy of all mobile communications — voice as well as text — were fully protected? That’s the dream of Frederic Jacobs, a member of the coder community Open Whisper, who has just created a new version of Signal, an app so simple that anyone can use it without paying attention to the complex cryptography behind it.

Belgian-born Jacobs wrote most of the code while a computer-science student at Switzerland’s EPFL. “When I joined Open Whisper Systems a little over a year ago,” he recalls, “I had in mind this project that would bring together two of my personal interests, modern cryptography and global privacy.” The application was previously avail­able for mobile phones using the open-source operating system Android, but not for those running Apple’s iOS. More important, Jacobs noticed that most security protocols were obsolete compared to state-of-the-art methods being created in academic research labs. “I wanted to bring these strong cryptography techniques to iPhone users.”

Encrypted communications may seem of interest only to those who deal with highly sensitive data, such as banking transactions or intelligence, or to malevolent users hoping to stay unnoticed. The members of Open Whisper Systems believe that even if the majority of Internet users have nothing to hide, they have a right to privacy because the most common business model in the web industry is based on advertising. “The personal data people give away in exchange for a free service like e-mail, searching or news allows firms to develop increasingly targeted ad strategies,” says Jacobs. “No one knows the limits.”

Apple’s iMessage already uses end-to-end encryption. So what’s the upgrade? “Apple’s service is not perfect,” says Jacobs. “For example, its proprietary technology makes it impossible for the community to detect vulnerabilities and fix flaws. Signal is open, free, collaborative and easy to use.”