Ronit Ray


Face-Eating Leopards and Humble Pie (Signal, why?)

2021-04-07 • 6-minute read

All three (a very bold estimate, probably) of my readers will know that I have been a pretty outspoken advocate for Signal as a messaging app. I've spent quite a while waxing lyrical about its security and privacy benefits, and those points still stand pretty well. Unfortunately, Signal has decided to go and add some kind of altcoin nonsense to their app.

Read more about this:

  1. Help Us Test Payments in Signal: The official announcement.
  2. Wired.com's piece on these developments
  3. Et tu, Signal?, a blog post by Stephen Diehl
  4. Discussion on this topic on HackerNews

I like simple things. I like things that do one thing and do them well. I was against WhatsApp adding silly social features like Stories when they did, and I don't like the five billion extra features Telegram has. Even so, one of the least nice additions you could bring into a messaging app is payments. It should go without saying that keeping all your eggs in one basket is a bad idea- and your communications and payments are two pretty big eggs. The only way you make this worse is by also pushing cryptocurrency.

I'm not a fan of cryptocurrencies- admittedly, it is not something that has excited me enough to delve deeply into the subject, but I just don't see the kind of liberating, world-changing potential that advocates like bringing up whenever they talk about bitcoin and cryptocurrency in general1. This means there's already a bit of an aversion to having some shiny crypto-cruft in an app I use daily. But Signal makes this worse in 3 fundamental ways:

  1. You are limited to choosing only one particular cryptocurrency for transactions.
  2. This choice is not a particularly mainstream one like Bitcoin or Monero, but a relatively new player called MobileCoin. I don't particularly care for marketing speak that calls itself privacy-focused. What is more important is that this is a random altcoin no one is particularly interested in, and that it is pre-mined. The majority (reportedly >85%) of mined coins are owned by the business entity that runs the day to day operations around it. The whole thing smells like a pump and dump scheme.
  3. Moxie Marlinspike, the creator and lead behind Signal, just happens to be one of the earliest backers of MobileCoin, and has been associated with the project as a paid consultant for years. Conflict of interest? Sure, it could be quid pro quo, where he believes he is adding a valuable service to his application while the MoneyCoin folks promise to dump a lot of money into Signal for years to come. The question is not whether it is mutually beneficial for them, but rather whether any of these benefits trickle down to the actual end users.

This new "feature" will be launched only in the UK for now, and considering India has been discussing a blanket ban on cryptocurrencies (it is currently just not considered legal tender), I may not have to encounter this for a while. What does interest and apall me in equal measure is whether this is just the first in a series of user-hostile "feature" pushes born out of economic interest or just the feeling that it might be useful.

Why am I posting about this? In an earlier post, I had mentioned:

See how things go, and if it seems like the service is unable to keep up even after you've given it enough chances in the near or distant future, you absolutely should consider picking alternatives, perhaps even decentralized services like XMPP or Matrix that are less likely to suffer from such issues.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before they implemeted something I didn't like and I had no recourse but to get with the program if I was to continue using the app ("'I never thought leopards would eat MY face,' sobs man who voted for the Leopards Eating People's Faces Party.") There really wouldn't be this much buzz around this today if Signal were decentralized like Matrix/XMPP, or if they at least allowed forks or third-party clients to hit their message servers. You would then be able to use a client as minimal or as bloated as you like, with your choice of interface, features, and anti-features. As it stands, however, that is not the case. I am very much still locked in to Signal, having moved a large portion of my network onto it only recently. There is still not enough cause for concern, but one thing is sure: I will not allow myself to fall prey to another walled garden the next time I switch.

Related: Drew DeVault's post What Should the Next Chat App Look Like?


Footnotes:

1. Basically my line of thinking is that you can't bypass ("be liberated from") governments and also require them to buy into your platform at least to the extent that they make it legal tender. Economies aren't willed into existence after closed board meetings; it's years of practice being standardized into a single definition, and that is bound to happen to any currency, crypto or otherwise. It's quite likely that to achieve any degree of ubiquity it will need to be backed by a corporation and/or multiple governments so that's no less reliance on the systems you hope to escape. If you're reliant on the powers that control the present unequal distribution of wealth and power to buy into your fancy new economy, I just feel like the moment they do, the existing power dynamic will just be ported over to the new platform. Instead of exchange rates you'll likely have spending caps and negative balances for example. Not to mention the fact that any currency reliant on mining is automatically prone to inequalities due to the instantly recognizable power dynamic between developed and developing nations. It's just that for every successful standard there are hundreds of vapourware as well, and personally I don't see the appeal to this unless it can make a case for itself in a meaningful way. So far most people I've spoken to have not been able to make a clear case for it, but that might be on me. I'm definitely open to the prospect of it in the near future, just not particularly excited.


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