Warning Signal

I wrote a couple of years ago about why I really like the Signal app for chat-style communications.  

(Quick summary: it’s just like WhatsApp but doesn’t require you to sell your soul and all of your contacts’ private information to the devil!)  

I’ve been using it for a few years now, for business and social discussions, and it’s been great.  It has very nice software both for mobile and desktop devices, and I know that several people have started using it because of my recommendations, too.

So I thought it only fair also to highlight here one of its key ‘limitations’; in fact, probably its only downside, as far as I’m concerned.  But it’s something fairly important that you may never discover… until it takes you by surprise.

Messages in a Signal conversation are transmitted using end-to-end encryption between the devices taking part in the conversation, and stored in encrypted form only on those devices as well.  Unlike some other communication networks, they are not archived on any organisation’s central servers and, on iOS at least, the messages are not included in any backups of the device.

If you buy a new phone, there’s a process you can go through to move your history directly from your old device to the new one, but here’s the rub:

Both devices need to be available and operational for you to do that.

There isn’t any other method. If you have lost your old iPhone, or it has completely died, then, while you can connect to Signal on your new phone and carry on your conversations, you won’t be able to see any past messages.  If you have them on another device such as an iPad or desktop machine, you should still be able to see your history there, but not transfer it.

There are good security reasons for most of this, and it certainly doesn’t stop me using Signal any more than it stops me using phone calls, but the price of the security is that you should consider Signal messages to be somewhat ephemeral.  Don’t think of them as an archive you will necessarily be able to go back and search indefinitely.  For that, it’s still better to use standards-compliant email… or to copy the important stuff into your personal Knowledge Management System.  You do have one of those, right?  

If so, make sure it’s something that you will always be able to get your data out of in future, like Obsidian.


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Hello Quentin,
Am I wrong in thinking that whatsapp decided not to grab our private data for their facebook systems in the end?
I’ve recently gone back to sending tradition text messages.
P.S. Just finished my degree at Hughes Hall 🙂

    Hi Liam –

    As far as I can tell, unless you explicitly forbid it when installing, your contacts data is captured and uploaded to their servers; they say as much as part of the setup process.

    And the experiment I did a couple of years ago suggest this, indeed, must be the case.

    I mostly use text/iMessages because my close family and most of my friends are in the Apple world. But Android users have fewer choices for secure group messaging, and so tend to be tempted by WhatsApp…

    Congrats on finishing the degree. I hope they’ve marked it for you too…!


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