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I think these types of posts are also the inevitable result of people overestimating our organizational capacity based on whatever limited success Signal and Signal Protocol have had. It could be that the author imagines me sitting in a glass skyscraper all day, drinking out of champagne flutes, watching over an enormous engineering team as they add support for animated GIF search as an explicit fuck you to people with serious needs.

I invite those who have opinions about Signal to start by getting involved in the project. To my knowledge the author of this blog post has never submitted a PR, issue, or discussion post to any of our repositories or forums. Many of these points are things that we would like to address, and we could use the help. The day to day reality of developing apps like these is a lot of work.

To provide some color on a few of these:

> Dependency on Google Cloud Messaging

To clarify this for casual readers, no data at all is transmitted over GCM. GCM is only used as a push event to tell the Signal Android client to wake up and connect to the Signal server to retrieve messages from the queue if the app isn't in the foreground.

This is pretty fundamentally just how Android works. However, people who want to use Google's OS without any Google services flash custom ROMs onto their devices that are missing this dependency.

I have said many times that I have no problem with supporting these custom ROMs. But I would like someone from that community to submit the PR: "I would consider a clean, well written, and well tested PR for websocket-only support in Signal. I expect it to have high battery consumption and an unreliable user experience, but would be fine with it if it comes with a warning and only runs in the absence of play services."

Nobody has done it.

> Your contact list is not private

First, on Android 6+ you can just disable the contacts permission and everything works (although you obviously won't see your contact names).

However, we also spend a lot of time thinking about this class of problems, as well as metadata in general. Right now things are playing out alright for one specific class of attack:

https://whispersystems.org/bigbrother/eastern-virginia-grand...

We'd obviously like to do even better. The nice thing about having a centralized service is that we can eventually take steps in this direction. People seem to equate federation with meta-data hiding for reasons I've never totally understood, but I think serious metadata protection is going to require new protocols and new techniques, so we're much more likely to see major progress in centralized rather than distributed environments (in the same way that Signal Protocol is now on over two billion devices, but we're unlikely to ever see even basic large scale email end to end encryption).

> Lack of federation

I've tried to write about why I don't feel like this is going to be a part of our future here: https://whispersystems.org/blog/the-ecosystem-is-moving/

However, I would love it if someone proved me wrong. The Signal clients and server already support federation, so there shouldn't be any technical hurdles stopping the people who are really into federation from using our software to start their own federated network that demonstrates the viability of their ideas.

If anyone needs help doing that, let me know. I'd be happy to help.




> However, I would love it if someone proved me wrong. The Signal clients and server already support federation, so there shouldn't be any technical hurdles stopping the people who are really into federation from using our software to start their own federated network that demonstrates the viability of their ideas.

> If anyone needs help doing that, let me know. I'd be happy to help.

I appreciate that you would say this. I suspected that you actually felt this way despite your pragmatic approach outlined in that blog post. I'm a fan of federation, but I think the developers of federated systems have to take the problems outlined in your blog post very seriously and not defensively.


Push notifications without GCM can be done without losing reliability or ruining battery life, but it's difficult. There are a few apps like Conversations doing it well but it's quite rare. GCM is still technically more efficient since it's reused across multiple apps, but it doesn't really matter especially without a large number of apps doing this.

There's already a built-in warning on modern Android because apps need to request a battery optimization exception just as they would one of the dangerous permissions. Otherwise, GCM is the only way they be woken during Doze / App Standby for push notifications. Apps can't simply poll anymore. It's unfortunate that even an app doing a great job like Conversations gets a warning / prompt about this but there's little that can be done about that beyond the OS whitelisting the keys for known good apps.

Conversations is pretty much the only viable option without GCM. It uses a take on the Signal protocol via XMPP (when supported by the other contact) so you helped to make that happen anyway.


Thanks for the clarifications.

> First, on Android 6+ you can just disable the contacts permission and everything works (although you obviously won't see your contact names).

This is very good.

> However, we also spend a lot of time thinking about this class of problems, as well as metadata in general. Right now things are playing out alright for one specific class of attack: [federal subpoena]

Good, so Open Whisper Systems has no metadata. Do any third parties retain metadata about Signal messages?

There's also the issue of mobile numbers. I get that more-or-less anonymous numbers are doable. But arguably, most Signal users don't have anonymous numbers. However, maybe this is a non-issue, if the only data available are "the date and time a user registered with Signal and the last date of a user's connectivity to the Signal service". Is that it?


> Good, so Open Whisper Systems has no metadata. Do any third parties retain metadata about Signal messages?

I'll try to answer to the best of my knowledge (I'm not associated with project, I'm just a happy customer).

Does your ISP know that you are communicating with Signal servers? Yes, IP addresses.

Does it know to whom you are sending messages? No.

Does Google know you are using Signal? Yes.

Does it know whom of your contacts use Signal? Yes, because they have a full list of your contacts and they know if someone has installed Signal.

Does Google know you've sent a message? No.

Does Google know that you are receiving a message? Sometimes, because Signal servers ping your device via GCM with "wake up".

Does Google knows who from your contact list send this message? No, unless you have only one contact who uses Signal.

Can Google infer from pings who is communicating with whom? Yes, although pings are needed only if app has disconnected from server, and this severely limits usefulness of this technique.

Where else may any metadata coming from usage of Signal be? Nowhere.

As for Google having your contact list... Take a look into Flock.


Thanks :)

I get that Signal is probably the best option for smartphones. And that maybe its vulnerabilities are only relevant for "TAO targets". But the problem is that "TAO targets" is in rapid flux, given developments in automation and AI. So arguably, more and more journalists and dissidents are becoming vulnerable.

And there's the fundamental insecurity of devices with cellular-radio connectivity, and operating systems that users can't control and lock down. Signal can do nothing about that. Even something as simple as reliably obscuring identity in connections to Signal servers is nontrivial.


> But the problem is that "TAO targets" is in rapid flux, given developments in automation and AI.

You are implying that cost of TAO consists mostly of labor costs. Which is false. NSA and friends are not really limited by money. They are limited by amount of unpatched software vulnerabilities. Every use of vulnerability in the wild is a chance of revealing it to world and losing it. Snowden docs reveal the existence of automated software which evaluates chance of vulnerability being revealed by attack. XKeyScore or one of related pieces, AFAIR.


Does Google know you are using Signal?

Does it know whom of your contacts use Signal?

Does Google know you've sent a message?

Does Google know that you are receiving a message?

Does Google knows who from your contact list send this message?

Can Google infer from pings who is communicating with whom?

Yes to all of those, because they have root on your phone.


You are assuming that Android reports on every step you take. Do you have sources backing this claim?


It's nearly impossible to find out. But if I trust corporations like Google not to exploit the possibilities, I wouldn't be looking for an open-source alternative to WhatsApp in the first place.


Signal is not positioned as a tool for possible TAO targets. Never was, and never will be. Don't use it and please stop spreading the FUD.


> Signal is not positioned as a tool for possible TAO targets. Never was, and never will be.

Eh, that’s exactly what it is currently advertised as.

A tool, supported by Snowden, to be used by journalists who are at risk of being under active surveillance by state actors.

That is the very definition of a TAO target.


You shouldn't use a smartphone if you expect to be TAO. Even the hardware could be compromised. Use a laptop with Linux for anything anyone might want to track...


Then why is Moxie advertising with Snowden the Signal app as communication for TAO targets?

And for non-TAO targets, WhatsApp is just as good as Signal – the users won’t read the source code anyway, and in both cases President Trump gets your social graph.


What exactly is a TAO target?


https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tailored_Access_Operations

Aka NSA's "we really need to get access to this device and will fund diverting backbone traffic / writing firmware malware / whatever else we need to in order to get it" team(s).


Tailored Access Operations from the NSA


terrible acronym obviously


Google has root on your phone. Even if they aren't "for now", good security sense says that we should assume that are.


It did formerly via Carrier IQ, which was widely reported in the press. So that's not unprecedented.


> I invite those who have opinions about Signal to start by getting involved in the project.

Yeah we've been there. Do you remember someone on Github complaining about the Google dependency? You closed that issue as a wontfix. Or LibreSignal? I read the post where you basically told them to go away on Github too.

That's why I haven't recommended Signal ever since trying it myself a year or two ago.


Downvotes but no comments. What is wrong with what I said?


> You closed that issue as a wontfix

Not sure what you're talking about, because the issues in question, #127 and #1000, are open.

> you basically told them to go away on Github

Quite the opposite [1]:

"I would consider a clean, well written, and well tested PR for websocket-only support in Signal. I expect it to have high battery consumption and an unreliable user experience, but would be fine with it if it comes with a warning and only runs in the absence of play services."

[1] https://github.com/LibreSignal/LibreSignal/issues/37#issueco...




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