In a data landscape that prioritizes information about users, it’s a rare thing to actually call for taking and keeping less of it. And yet, end-to-end-encrypted messaging app Signal has grown in popularity precisely for bucking the trend. This week, they took another step in protecting their users with the announcement of “sealed sender.”
This mode will hide a sender’s identifying information inside an already-encrypted message, meaning that Signal itself will have no information about where a message originates—only where it needs to go. Put in their terms on their blog this week, “While the service always need to know where a message should be delivered, ideally it shouldn’t need to know who the sender is.” This Sealed Sender mode enacts what they see as a better way: “It would be better if the service could handle packages where only the destination is written on the outside, with a blank space where the “from” address used to be.” A new delivery process is in beta to accomplish this goal, and will be automatically included in a forthcoming update for the platform.
It’s important to note that presently, Signal users have considerable control over who they communicate with using the tool. In their words, “profiles are shared with your contacts, other people or groups who you explicitly approve, and in conversations that you create.” This matters because messages with unidentified and largely untraceable senders could potentially lead to abuse or harassment with no way to find its origin. Recognizing that risk, Signal also affords users the option to communicate with others outside this defined radius—but acknowledges that those users are “living on the edge,” and requires them to opt-in to such messages.
While many platforms couldn’t accomplish this level of security for users (and frankly, few aspire to it), Signal is serving a population actively aiming to combat the cultures of other messaging companies, ones so sensitive to breach and exposure. These moves are aiding Signal in its move to cultivate what they call “metadata resistance,” or a wish to eliminate as much metadata as possible on its users. As TechCrunch explains it: “your data was never stored—but now it can’t be.”
This is a highly attractive feature for vulnerable populations in need of a secure and largely untraceable way to share sensitive information. Reporters can use it to get tips from confidential sources, and marginalized individuals in need of a safe place to disclose information can do so without fear of being found out. The final words of their announcement share words that many social media users yearn to hear right now: “We do not collect or store any sensitive information about our users, and that won’t ever change.” In a world where data seems a moment away from theft or surveillance, it’ll be interesting to see how like products respond to this latest move from Signal.
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