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Thinking of switching to Signal? Here’s a lowdown on the WhatsApp alternative

Many users are switching to Signal as WhatsApp has updated its privacy policy. But what is Signal? And how does the messaging app work? We take an in-depth look.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | Chandigarh |
Updated: January 11, 2021 9:07:03 am
signal, signal update, signal news, signal privacy, signal featues, whatsapp, whatsapp update, whatsapp news, whatsapp privacy, whatsapp security, telegram,Signal to ramp up hiring after WhatsApp controversy drives download surge (Image source: Bloomberg)

Ditch WhatsApp, switch to Signal. That’s the route some users are taking in 2021 after WhatsApp updated its privacy policy which elaborates more on the data sharing with Facebook. In fact, the mass exodus caused some trouble as Signal’s servers were unable to handle the influx and verification codes were delayed, though that issue appears to have been resolved. Add to that, Tesla CEO Elon Musk also issued a call to ‘Use Signal’ to his millions of Twitter followers. Currently, the app is topping charts.

But what is Signal? Well it is a messaging app with a focus on privacy, and has been around since 2014. Other famous endorsers of the app include Edward Snowden and former WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton.

Signal’s tagline is ‘Say Hello to Privacy’ and the service is end-to-end encrypted just like WhatsApp. In fact, WhatsApp uses the Signal protocol for its end-to-end encryption feature. But unlike WhatsApp, Signal is not owned by Facebook. We take a look at everything you need to know about Signal.

What is Signal? Who created the app?

Signal is a messaging app, available for iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows, Mac and Linux. The app is developed by the Signal Foundation and Signal Messenger LLC and it is a non-profit company. The app was created by Moxie Marlinspike, American cryptographer and currently CEO of Signal Messenger.

The Signal Foundation was created by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and Marlinspike. Acton, who left WhatsApp back in 2017, has put in around $50 million to help with funding Signal.

WhatsApp vs Signal, Signal app, Signal Elon Musk, What is Signal app, How to use Signal, Signal app, What is Signal, Signal messaging app Signal has almost all the features as seen on a regular messaging app. But it collects the bare minimum user data. (Image source: Signal)

Do you have to pay to use Signal? What are the features?

The app is completely free to use. Signal lets users send messages, make audio and video calls with their friends, share photos, videos and links, similar to how other messaging apps work. In fact, it recently introduced the group video calling option in December 2020. One can also create groups on Signal, which are limited to 150 members.

If you do create a group, everyone is not automatically added to the group. People are sent an invite and they have to accept the invite to join the Group, unlike WhatsApp where someone who has your contact can often add you straight to a group. And unless you change the setting on WhatsApp, everyone can directly add to you a group.

Signal lets you individually reply to messages, send emoji-based reactions to a particular message, and even delete a particular message from the chat by choosing the ‘Delete for Everyone’ option. These are all features we’ve seen on other messages apps as well, including WhatsApp.

Signal also has a disappearing messages feature. You can set disappearing messages on for each individual chat and choose the time ranging from 5 seconds to one week.

But the focus of Signal is on privacy entirely. The app is not just about offering end-to-end encryption, but chooses to collect minimal user data, without compromising on features.

Can you use Signal on a laptop or iPad?

Yes, you can use Signal on your iPad or laptop, and link the account to the one on your phone. However, chat history is not transferred when you do link. So what does this mean? Say you were using Signal on your iPhone and you link it to your Mac using the QR code feature. This can be found in the Linked Devices feature in the app’s settings. Your account will get synced to your Mac, but all previous conversations won’t appear on the Mac. That’s because all message history is stored on the individual device itself.

Can I backup my chats on Signal to Google Drive or iCloud?

No, unlike WhatsApp this is not possible. So if you lose access to your old phone, and set up Signal once again on a new device, all previous chats will be gone. Signal says all messages, pictures, files, and other contents are stored locally on your device. If you have your old device, you can transfer the data, but if you lost your phone or cleared the data on your phone, or changed your number, then chats cannot be restored.

What are some of the privacy features on Signal?

Signal has plenty of privacy-focused features. For one, Signal’s privacy settings have an option of ‘Relay Calls’ where the calls go through a Signal server to avoid revealing your IP address to your contact. But enabling this does reduce call quality, according to Signal, and might not be necessary for everyone.

It also offers the option to turn on or off Read Receipts, where someone can see when you have read their messages. It also gives an option to turn on or off typing indicators to show when a message is being typed. Plus there is no feature like Status as seen on WhatsApp, which can show when you are online.

Read more: Use Signal, says Elon Musk after WhatsApp privacy policy change

Signal also lets users turn off link previews from websites if you send those in messages. There’s also a security PIN you can set up to keep your account safe. One can set PIN reminders to ensure that Signal keeps asking you for the same. Remember this PIN can’t be recovered if you forget it, though Signal does let you change it from the setting. If you forget the PIN though, you might lose access to your account.

Signal also has a Screen Lock feature, where you can rely on Touch ID, FaceID or your iOS device’s passcode to access the app. However, incoming calls and message notifications can be answered even if the Screen Lock is enabled.

What data does Signal collect?

If you look at the Signal app’s privacy nutrition label on Apple’s App Store, the only data that is collected is ‘Contact Info’, which is the phone number. According to Signal’s privacy policy, it is “designed to never collect or store any sensitive information.” All messages and calls on the app are end-to-end encrypted, meaning no third-party, nor Signal can access them.

According to Signal’s privacy policy, the main information collected is account information. This is primarily the phone number used to create the Signal account. Signal says that other information added to the account such as profile name and picture is end-to-end encrypted.

The app also stores some additional technical information on its servers, which includes “randomly generated authentication tokens, keys, push tokens, and other material that is necessary to establish calls and transmit messages.” The company says it “limits this additional technical information to the minimum required to operate the Services.”

Signal does not store your messages or any information about your calls on its servers. However, it does queue “end-to-end encrypted messages on its servers for delivery to devices that are temporarily offline.” Example being where a phone’s battery is dead or has lost internet connectivity. Signal says that a user’s message history is stored on their own device.

Signal also makes it clear “cannot decrypt or otherwise access the content of your messages or calls.”

Regarding other contacts, Signal says it can “optionally discover which contacts in your address book are Signal users.” It does so using a service, however it adds that this information of a user’s contacts is kept secure.

According to Signal this information “may be cryptographically hashed and transmitted to the server in order to determine which of your contacts are registered.”

Signal also says it may share some information with third parties to provide some services. For example, instance third-party services, which provide the verification code. It also notes that if a user relies on third-Party Services like “YouTube, Spotify, Giphy, etc. in connection with our Services, their Terms and Privacy Policies govern your use of those services.”

The app makes it clear that it does not “sell, rent or monetise your personal data or content in any way – ever.”

Can business accounts contact you on Signal?

Signal is meant for direct communications between people. It does not have dedicated business accounts for small, medium enterprises or larger enterprises like WhatsApp does. But yes, a business can join Signal as a regular account to contact users, though you will always have the option of blocking any contact.

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