Signal is a government op
Signal was created and funded by a CIA spinoff. It is not your friend.
Signal — the privacy chat app favored by the world’s leading crypto experts — is trending again. In the wake of Twitter and Facebook’s MAGA Maidan Internet purge (which was followed by Facebook’s announcement that it was gonna start siphoning data off its WhatsApp property), Signal shot up to being the top downloaded messenger app on the planet.
The New York Times is writing about it. Edward Snowden is tweeting about it, telling his fans that Signal is the only reason he’s able to stay alive (and not the fact that he’s being protected round-the-clock by Russia’s security apparatus.) Hell, Even Elon Musk is out there telling people to go Signal. So many people are flooding the app that it’s been crashing.
Given that the app is blowing up, I figure it’s a good time to roll out my periodic public service announcement: Signal was created and funded by a CIA spinoff. Yes, a CIA spinoff. Signal is not your friend.
Here are the cold hard facts.
Signal was developed by Open Whisper Systems, a for-profit corporation run by “Moxie Marlinspike,” a tall, lanky cryptographer who has a head full of dreadlocks and likes to surf and sail his boat. Moxie was an old friend of Tor’s now-banished chief radical promotor Jacob Appelbaum, and he’s played a similar fake-radical game — although he’s never been able to match Jake’s raw talent and dedication to the art of the con. Still, Moxie wraps himself in air of danger and mystery and hassles reporters about not divulging any personal information, not even his age. He constantly talks up his fear of Big Brother and tells stories about his FBI file.
So how big a threat is Moxie to the federal government?
This big: After selling his encryption start-up to Twitter in 2011, Moxie began partnering with America’s soft-power regime change apparatus — including the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (now called the U.S. Agency for Global Media) — on developing tech to fight Internet censorship abroad. That relationship led to his next venture: a suite of government-funded encrypted chat and voice mobile apps. Say hello to Signal.
If you look at Signal’s website today, you’ll find all sorts of celebrity endorsements — Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and even Jack Dorsey. You’ll also find a “donate” button — which, by the way, you shouldn’t press because Signal has plenty of tech oligarch cash on hand these days. What you won’t find is an “about” section that explains Signal’s origin story — a story that involves several million dollars in seed and development capital from Radio Free Asia, a CIA spinoff whose history goes back to 1951 and involves all sorts of weird shit, including its association in the 1970s with the Moonies, the hardcore anti-communist Korean cult.
Exactly how much cash Signal got from the U.S. government is hard to gauge, as Moxie and Open Whisper System have been opaque about the sources of Signal’s funding. But if you tally up the information that’s been publicly released by the Open Technology Fund, the Radio Free Asia conduit that funded Signal, we know that Moxie’s outfit received at least $3 million over the span of four years — from 2013 through 2016. That’s the minimum Signal got from the feds.
Three mil might not seem like much these days, especially because Signal recently got a huge infusion of WhatsApp oligarch cash to keep its operation going. But it’s important to know that without this early U.S. government seed money, there would be no Signal today. And that makes you think: If Signal’s super crypto tech truly posed a threat to the feds and to our oligarchy’s power, why would the feds bankroll its creation? And why would Facebook and Google rush to adopt its super-secure protocols? H’mmmmm…
As you can see from the way Parler was shutdown last week — when our imperial oligarchy wants to cancel an app, it can do so instantly and with a vengeance. But Signal lives on and thrives, despite it being a supposed threat to the almighty surveillance powers of the United States of America.
Signal was seeded by this Radio Free Asia?
What is Radio Free Asia and the Open Technology Fund? And why would the U.S government fund crypto tech like Signal? On top of that, why would Silicon Valley — built as it is on for-profit surveillance — embrace Signal’s supposedly unbreakable privacy tech?
I’ve written at length about the deeper history of Signal’s government backers and the way in which crypto fits into America’s imperial machine. In fact, I dedicated two whole chapters of my book to the subject. I won’t reprint it here. But if you want to know the whole story, you can pick up Surveillance Valley at your local bookstore. Or you can check out some of the articles I’ve written on the topic over the years. The mains ones are:
In “The Crypto-Keepers: How the politics-by-app hustle conquered all,” I do a profile on Telegram and survey the field of our tech obsessed privacy culture and the bankrupt libertarian-neoliberal politics that underpin it.
In “Internet Privacy, Funded By Spies” I tell the history of the U.S. government regime change apparatus that funds privacy apps like Signal and Tor.
In “#J20, Signal, spies and the cult of crypto” I riff on what being obsessed with crypto says about our politics.
Back in 2016, German magazine konkret published a wide-ranging interview with me about spies, politics, and crypto culture.
But beyond just Signal and its government money trail, what interests me are the politics embedded in our culture’s obsession with crypto and privacy tech. People are obviously concerned about the all-pervasive surveillance that surrounds us. But instead of seeking political solutions to surveillance, our culture has become obsessed with technological and technocratic solutions — not just Signal, but apps like Telegram and email providers like ProtonMail.
There’s a feeling of an NRA fantasy to it all. It’s the idea that if everyone is equipped with a crypto weapon powerful enough, we could take on both corporations and powerful spy agencies like the NSA. We can win this war! But cryptography is an area normally reserved for warfare and espionage between powerful states. There’s nothing grassroots about it. It’s an arena where this “people power” is destined to fail.
Maybe using Signal and other “secure” apps can protect you from your local police department if you’re buying molly off our neighborhood dealer — that is, if the cops don’t get ahold of your phones. But if you think you can win a privacy arms race against our imperial tech oligarchy by using apps that are run and developed on property owned and controlled by this very same imperial tech oligarchy…well, you know the answer to that.
PS: When I was working on my book, I found out through a FOIA request that my early reporting on Tor and Signal immediately got the attention of the top people in America’s regime change apparatus. That included Libby Liu, the head of Radio Free Asia. She got freaked out that my exposé on the millions in government funds that were flowing to “grassroots” anti-government crypto tech like Signal and Tor was going scare away the privacy community. Lucky for her and the U.S. government, she was wrong. The top privacy activists of our age — including the people from Tor — didn’t care that their main backer was an old school CIA op. That’s what shocked me when I came across her email. Here was the head of Radio Free Asia talking about privacy activists as if they were all in the government’s pocket. And the thing is, they were — and are.