AMU Big Data & Analytics Cyber & AI Defense Editor's Pick Original

Edward Snowden and the Senate Use the Signal App: Should You?

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InCyberDefense, In Military and In Space News

In 2013, Edward Snowden changed the way many of us think about internet security. Whether you love him or hate him, Snowden dropped a truth bomb on the world. He made us realize that several government agencies are reading your emails and text messages, listening to your phone calls and browsing your private pictures on your phone, all for the purpose of keeping you safe from terrorists.

What’s more, these agencies allow telecom companies like Verizon, internet service providers like Comcast and big tech companies like Google to reach even deeper into your personal life. The name for all of this activity is “mass surveillance.”

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In Snowden’s 2019 memoir “Permanent Record,” he makes the case for universal adoption of encryption. Snowden notes that encryption is the only way to prevent unconstitutional searches of your private data and foil cybercriminals.

But what exactly is encryption and how can you implement it? It’s not as hard as you think.

Encryption 101

Securing conversational data is a task that neither citizens nor businesses can continue to ignore. According to Business 2 Community writer Carey Wodehouse, “Encryption scrambles text to make it unreadable by anyone other than those with the keys to decode it, and it’s becoming less of an added option and more of a must-have element in any security strategy for its ability to slow down and even deter hackers from stealing sensitive information.”

If good encryption is capable of hindering investigations by FBI experts, consider what it could do for you and your company’s sensitive information.

Asymmetric Encryption Used in Online Banking and for Secure Communications

Today, most online banking and secure communications are performed using something called asymmetric encryption.

Zainul Franciscus of How-To Geek explains asymmetric encryption like this: “First, Alice asks Bob to send his open padlock to her through regular mail, keeping his key to himself. When Alice receives it, she uses it to lock a box containing her message and sends the locked box to Bob.

“Bob can then unlock the box with his key and read the message from Alice. To reply, Bob must similarly get Alice’s open padlock to lock the box before sending it back to her.”

The critical advantage in an asymmetric key system is that Bob and Alice never need to send a copy of their keys to each other. This prevents a third party from copying a key while that information is in transit.

256-Bit Encryption Is Incredibly Strong

Most people see the term 256-bit encryption online, but they have absolutely no idea what it means or how strong it is. A 256-bit key can have 2256 possible combinations.

How strong is 256-bit encryption? Patrick Nohe of the The SSL Store says that “A 256-bit private key will have 115,792,089,237,316,195,423,570,985,008,687,907,853,269,984,665,640,564,039,457,584,007,913,129,639,936 (that’s 78 digits) possible combinations. No supercomputer on the face of this earth can crack that in any reasonable timeframe.”

Signal: A Free, Open Source Messaging App

Normal SMS text messaging has some well-known security holes and Facebook messaging, while slightly more secure, uses your data for advertising. But there is a free, open-source and secure messaging app that works on all mobile devices and also allows you to make secure calls and send secure photos: Signal.

Thanks in part to the DNC leaks and various government cyberattacks, the United States Senate approved the use of the app Signal for staff use in 2017.

Signal is one of the best ways to keep your conversations private. In addition, it is free to use and ad-free, sparing you from annoying pop-up advertisements.

Signal is also open-source, meaning security researchers can inspect the code to ensure that the app is doing what it is supposed to.

An Increasing Need for Privacy

A common argument against encryption is the statement “I don’t care about privacy because I have nothing to hide.” But that’s like saying, “I don’t care about the freedom of speech because I have nothing to say.”

While privacy isn’t strictly provided for in the U.S. Constitution, it is what many Americans consider to be an implied freedom. There is, however, an amendment that restricts unreasonable search and seizure. The Fourth Amendment prohibits a search and seizure by a government official without a search warrant and without probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime is present.

The messaging platform WhatsApp uses the same technology as Signal. But since WhatsApp’s recent acquisition by Facebook, many of its billions of users are increasingly worried about their data privacy and specifically how Facebook will use their WhatsApp conversations for advertising purposes.

The advent of quantum computing may make traditional encryption obsolete. But until then, the Signal app is one of the only ways to guarantee that your conversations stay private.

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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