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Does Twitter own Signal? Well, No. Here is all you need to know

There are many reasons to believe that Twitter CEO Jack is behind the Signal app, for example, his endorsement during BLM riots, but, he is not.

WhatsApp has recently announced major changes in its privacy policy that every user either has to accept or leave the platform. WhatsApp will be sharing a lot of information about your interactions with peers with the parent company Facebook. The idea behind sharing information is to provide targetted ads to the users. Keeping privacy concerns in mind, a large group of people have decided to migrate from WhatsApp. While deciding to migrate from Whatsapp, a pertinent question came up about the app most were planning to migrate to – does Twitter own Signal?

It stands to reason that one cannot just dump the messaging app that has been part of your life for so many years without having an alternate in hand. The alternate that is creating a buzz is the Signal app. Signal, an open-source heavily-encrypted message exchange app, was endorsed by Elon Musk (CEO SpaceX), Edward Snowden (Whistleblower and Privacy advocate) and several other high-profile tech experts. The current situation is that Signal servers are overwhelmed with the traffic. The foundation that runs the app is trying its best and adding servers to keep up with the increased traffic.

Rumours always find space: After Elon Musk endorses Signal, rumours galore of Singal being owned by Twitter

For some reason, people love controversies and rumours. They will always find space to mushroom hen something extraordinary, good, bad or worse happens in this world. It is unsure if Signal is a saint or the devil himself, but one thing is sure that rumours are blanketing its popularity. One of the rumours that we have come across is that Signal is owned by none other Twitter. At first, if you look around without going deep into the information junkyard, the claim seems legit.

To be honest, Signal was already used by lakhs of users as a safe alternative of messaging and calling apps due to its heavy encryption. However, when it started to get an endorsement from tech-experts and CEOs of tech giants, the download graph spiked. There are many reasons to believe that Twitter CEO Jack is behind the Signal app.

First and foremost, he had endorsed the app much before it became a widely known thing among the masses who use WhatsApp and other messaging services. He had urged users to use Signal during the BLM protests happening in the US that turned violent. Because of the heavy encryption, it becomes next to impossible for law enforcement agencies to know what exactly is happening on the app. Thus, it gets hard to track those who are organizing or attending the protests.

Recently, on January 10, Jack shared that Signal was number one free messaging app with an heart emoji that stirred the controversy further.

The controversy after Jack endorsed Signal

Secondly, Twitter had acquired ‘Whisper Systems’ in 2011 and Signal is developed by ‘Open Whisper Systems’. This seems to be the main point of contention that is fuelling the rumours.

The similarity in the names is just mind-numbing, especially for those who have developed a hatred for Twitter for its alleged biased perspective towards those who have politically right-leaning views. Their fear is genuine because if the tech giant can suspend the United States’ sitting President’s account, common people have no stand in front of it.

However, those who are sharing the information are using Wikipedia as their source that is, in our opinion, not trustworthy. It is essential to reach to the source of information and find out what exactly is happening out there. Otherwise, in a few months or years, everyone will just end up being on the mercy of Twitter instead of Facebook, directly or indirectly.

While some people tried to debunk the rumour, like this Twitter thread by one @ThatHappyDudee, it only gained steam.

To understand who owns the Signal app, it will be better to learn the chronology of events that led to the app’s development.

Year 2010 – Foundation of Whisper Systems

In the year 2010, Moxie Marlinspike, a security researcher, and Stuart Anderson, a roboticist, founded Whisper Systems. They developed two main products, named TextSecure and RedPhone. Both applications were heavily encrypted to ensure safe communication. TextSecure was a messaging service while RedPhone was meant for voice calls. The company also developed several tools and firewall to encrypt other forms of data among which Whispercore gained popularity.

Year 2011-12 – Twitter acquired Whisper Systems

In November 2011, Marlinspike and Anderson, Whisper Systems’ only employees, announced that Twitter had acquired Whisper Systems for an undisclosed amount. Almost immediately after acquiring Whisper Systems, Twitter decided to discontinue RedPhone. In a conversation with Wired, Moxie said that the app was taken down temporarily. He said, “[RedPhone] is targeted just for Egypt, but sets the stage for worldwide support.”

Screenshot from archived blogpost of Whisper Systems announcing acquisition by Twitter

A month later, in December 2011, Twitter released TextSecure as free and open-source software under GPLv3. RedPhone was also released under GPLv3 license in 2012. This is the initial set of information that is causing confusion about the ownership of the Signal app. Please note that the name of the company that Twitter had acquired was Whisper Systems.

Screenshots from archived blogposts of Whisper Systems

Year 2013 – Moxie announced Open Whisper Systems

In the year 2013, Moxie decided to leave Twitter.

In 2016, Moxie told Wired that when Twitter acquired Whisper Systems, it was the most money he had ever seen—“but that’s a low bar.” He further explained what encouraged him to leave Twitter and forget about $1 Million in stocks. The story is as fascinating as his contributions to privacy and security in the internet world. According to Moxie, a near-death experience had sharpened his focus. He barely made out of a sailing accident that left him in hospital for days. “It made me question what I was doing with my life.” Instead of leaving sailing, he decided to leave Twitter.

At this point, he has no connection with the Whisper Systems. In the future endeavours that Moxie was planning to start, Twitter was not going to play any role. In 2013, Moxie officially launched Open Whisper Systems (OWS). In a blog post, Moxie had called Open Whisper Systems, ‘A New Home’ for his project. This is the second instance which is confusing the users. Please note that the new company that Moxie formed was named Open Whisper Systems. The name resembles his first company’s name Open Whispers, but the entities were completely different.

The app got support from Edward Snowden and CyanogenMod (a discontinued open-source mobile operating platform) that helped in creating stronger encryption. In 2014, Edward Snowden had said, “I think we are actually seeing a lot of progress being made here. WhisperSystems and the Moxie Marlinspikes of the world are focusing on new user experience, new UIs and basically ways for us to interact with cryptographic tools.”

During this period, Moxie also worked on TextSecure Protocol which is now known as Signal Protocol. It provides end-to-end encryption for groups. The protocol is notably used by WhatsApp, Facebook (Facebook Messenger), Google (Allo, which is now discontinued and Duo) and Microsoft (Skype). In some apps that use Signal Protocol, the encryption is not on by default. The user has to switch it on. In apps like Signal, encryption is by default. This particular point is important as it establishes how strong the encryption is that the Signal app uses.

In 2013, Cyanogen had announced that their OS would have encryption messaging services (Whisperpush) by default, thanks to Open Whisper Systems. The endorsement helped in the further development of the applications.

Year 2014-2016 – Birth of Signal App and its development for Android

In July 2014, OWS announced Signal App for iOS platform. At that time, the company had announced that they were planning to merge RedPhone and TextSecure for Android as well. In November 2015, RedPhone and TextSecure were merged into Signal, and it was launched for Android-based smartphones. In 2016, Cyanogen dropped support for Whisperpush in favour of Signal. In the same year, Cyanogen was discontinued, and a new Operating System LineageOS (available on GitLab) was launched which is still using Signal app.

Meanwhile, OWS continued to work on their messaging application and moved from RedPhone platform to WebRTC in 2017 (Web Real-Time Communication) that helped in adding facilities like Video Calls.

The birth of Signal Technology Foundation

In January 2018, Moxie joined hands with WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and formed Signal Foundation formal name Signal Technology Foundation. Acton had invested $50 million to give it a financial push. In a blog post, Moxie wrote that they did not take any VC funding and prefer to continue as a nonprofit organization. In simpler terms, Signal is quite like Linux platform, an open-source operating system that is being developed with the help of the community and a few in-house developers.

Signal Technology Foundation has no connection to Whisper Systems

To make it further easier to understand, imagine there is a departmental store named “Your Kiryana Store” near your house owned by Mr Aggarwal. His two sons, Suresh and Ramesh, decided to go on different paths and Ramesh opened “Your New Kiryana Store” in the same lane. After some arguments, the new departmental store’s name was changed to “Ashirwad Kiryana Store”. Now, the Kiryana stores are different. The owners are different. However, some may think that both shops belong to the same family because they are brothers, which is not true.

Is Singal safe and does Twitter own Signal?

Now coming to the main question. Does Twitter own Signal? It is a big NO. Yes, Jack endorses Signal and urge people to use it over WhatsApp. Yes, those who are suspicious that he has to do anything with the app have the right to be suspicious because of his dubious history. But in a nutshell, Signal is safe, and the Signal Technology Foundation is registered [PDF] under Brian Acton’s name. At least for now. We cannot be a hundred percent sure what future has stored for us. Tech giants often take over smaller companies to use their technology. Hopefully, the case will be different when it comes to Signal.

For heaven’s sake, the digital presence of the President of the United States is entirely gone! You cannot see that coming, and you cannot be a hundred percent sure about anything tech-related. But, for now, if you see a post that claims Twitter owns Signal, please ignore it and move on. It is entirely up to you if you want to stick with WhatsApp or you want to shift to Signal. However, please make sure, if you are leaving WhatsApp, remove your account properly. We will publish a detailed and easy-to-understand post on how to delete your WhatsApp account very soon.

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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