Encrypted messaging app Signal now available for desktops

3 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Encrypted messaging app Signal launches on desktop for Android users.

For the last half decade, Moxie Marlinspike has been working to make end-to-end encrypted conversations so easy that they’re nearly indistinguishable from unencrypted ones.The encryption app has become a staple on iOS and Android by being both highly effective at protecting privacy and sharply simple so that anyone can use it to make calls and send texts. It’s free to download, and it consistently ranks at the top of many cryptographers’ shortlist of communications tools in terms of security and convenience. Now his software organization, Open Whisper Systems, is taking the next step to extend that layer of dead-simple privacy across all your gadgets, including those big, old-fashioned ones sitting on your desk.

The app was formerly known as TextSecure on Android, providing end-to-end encrypted messages, before it merged with RedPhone, an app for end-to-end encrypted voice calls. On Wednesday, Open Whisper launched an open beta version of its free encryption app Signal as an app in Google’s Chrome web store, the first step in bringing its encrypted messaging and calling functions to the desktop. Signal on PC is a Chrome Web app that requires an individual to sign in with a Google account, download via the Chrome store, quickly link the desktop app with the mobile app, and then use Signal with Google Chrome. Partially that’s because of the reputable cryptographers behind it, but it’s also because of the quality of the protocol design, as well as its implementation. But Marlinspike says a desktop version that synchs with iOS devices is coming soon, along with encrypted desktop voice calls and more encrypted file-sharing features.

Back in 2013, Johns Hopkins professor Matthew Green wrote a blog post saying that “after reading Moxie’s RedPhone code the first time, I literally discovered a line of drool running down my face. All of that promises to make Signal the most broadly adaptable, full-featured, and free secure communications platform available. “Our objective is to make private messaging and end-to-end encryption ubiquitous,” Marlinspike says. “You can be having a conversation on your phone, and if you want to use all ten fingers, you switch to your desktop and the conversation is right there…That’s a requirement of the modern world, but we haven’t historically had end-to-end encryption that allowed people to use their devices that way.” Since they first launched on Android five years ago in the form of a pair of apps called Redphone and Textsecure, Marlinspike’s encrypted texting and voice apps have become favorites in the privacy community—even Edward Snowden has tweeted his appreciation of them.

A commenter on a Hacker News forum griped about some of these initial restrictions, saying that “Unfortunately this release just deepened my belief that Signal wasn’t meant to be for me.” Marlinspike appears to have responded personally to the criticism by suggesting several options, such as employing a throwaway phone number or using alternative open source software such as the free Chromium browser. At the heart of the many projects that he’s worked on is the desire to make encrypted communication accessible to everyone. “I think when we work on TextSecure or Signal, it’s so that it’s easy for existing players to plug it into their products,” Marlinspike told me last year. It has already been adopted by Silent Circle’s Silent Phone app; by Pond, a modern Tor-only email-like protocol written by Adam Langley, one of Google’s top security engineers; ChatSecure; and soon, the new Cryptocat. Usability is, of course, a top concern for Marlinspike. “We want to produce technology that is privacy preserving but feels just like everything else people already use,” the commenter bearing his name wrote, “not somehow convince everyone to fundamentally change their workflow and their expectations.” Indeed, there are two reasons why many technologists often shower praise on Signal: 1) for its sleek design and 2) for the powerful cryptography underneath its hood.

It’s really nice.” Meanwhile, the apps have been installed on more than a million Android phones alone, and the Textsecure encrypted texting protocol has been integrated by default into the popular Cyanogenmod version of Android and the half-billion Android installations of Whatsapp. Signal is also among the few tools for journalists supported by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which also supports Tor, TAILS, LEAP (secure email system), and SecureDrop.

Roughly speaking, Axolotl is an enhanced version of OTR (Off The Record), the popular end-to-end protocol for messaging apps of the past decade, which received the ability to do asynchronous communications (people can leave you messages while you’re offline), and end-to-end group chat capability. However, so far Whatsapp hasn’t made any public statements about using it, nor has it added any option to authenticate that end-to-end encryption between users.

The encryption for Signal is well built, as made clear by the praise lavished on it by a wide range of cryptographer academics (and, more famously, Snowden). Since launching TextSecure in 2010, he’s become a well-known figure among privacy advocates, and his work has attracted the gaze of large public companies like Twitter and Facebook.

For end-to-end voice encryption, Signal uses ZRTP, a protocol standardized a few years back at the IETF by Phil Zimmermann, the creator of PGP and co-founder of Silent Circle. Unlike many other apps that don’t use Axolotl (or OTR even), Signal is able to encrypt all messages end-to-end by default, whether they are between two or more individuals. Once Firefox (and possibly Microsoft’s Edge) adopt the standardized Chrome-like WebExtensions API, it should be easier to write a similar extension across all the major browsers. For now, access seems to be provided through some kind of invitation system, where if you get more people to sign up, you get your own invitation sooner.

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