In the interest of protecting my personal privacy under the imminent Trump administration, I recently convinced the five members of my oldest group chat to switch from GroupMe to encrypted-messaging app Signal. Before jumping ship, one member tenderly downloaded the chat’s photo history, sharing her favorites. I lovingly skimmed a lengthy conversation we had had about Star Wars: The Force Awakens one last time before deleting my account. Giving up the memories encapsulated in a thread that had lasted for about three years was, admittedly, an emotional moment for everyone.
When we arrived on Signal, it took a moment until we could warm to our new digital digs. A few people were temporarily flagged because we hadn’t verified their “safety numbers” — part of the process of ensuring you are who you say you are on the app. Then there was the task of installing the app’s desktop version. Everyone was disappointed to learn that we could no longer “heart” a person’s message. “Is there a way to change the Signal sound? I hate the default,” one member asked. “Hiding from the government is a lot of work,” another quipped. Compared to our other messaging systems, the whole environment lacked the pillowy extras we had been afforded by nearly every other mainstream chat app.
Still, we were willing to give those things up for a good reason. Online-privacy activists have argued that Trump’s distaste for dissidents — paired with his impending control of the NSA’s considerable surveillance capabilities — could result in spying efforts that target political, journalist, or citizen opponents. If he reportedly listened in on his guests’ phone calls with staff at Mar-a-Lago, who’s to say he wouldn’t go a step further to keep tabs on the American people? Theoretically, your Trump-related rant on Hangouts could be tracked by the government. Or worse: used against you.
Even if a group of journalists is willing to waste a half-hour wading through a less-convenient messaging app that, ahem, doesn’t even have custom emoji options, the average user has more immediate things to worry about. Yes, there have been anecdotal spikes in downloads of more-secure chat services, but we have no idea if that’s due to a temporary Trump scare or if those numbers will evolve into a healthier daily active user count. Either way, encryption apps have yet to collect the same mass market audience enjoyed by insecure alternatives like Facebook Messenger, and even its “secret conversations” function, or iMessage. When researchers from Google and Carnegie Mellon recently looked into why that is, they found that most normal people — you know, those who do not actively identify as fanboy disciples of Elliot Alderson — rarely know or care if their messaging apps use encryption. Instead, the online survey of 1,510 people led the researchers to conclude that “peer influence is what primarily drives people to use a particular mobile IM, even for secure/private IMs, and that security and privacy play minor roles.” In-person interviews further revealed that people steered clear of apps with heavy security protocol because of issues with “usability,” including the inability to look up old messages, or send them without interruption. In other words, there’s no use in taking extra precautions in protecting your conversations if you don’t have anyone to talk to.
At least a few developers have picked up on the disconnect between the encrypted software they make and the people they want to use it. “Encryption has failed to make itself accessible and easy to use,” programmer and security researcher Nadim Kobeissi told a Montreal audience in a 2013 TED Talk. He felt passionately enough about it to develop Cryptocat, a colorful, consumer-facing encrypted desktop app. In addition to being easy to set up and use, the software’s mascot features a lovable, pixelated cat.
“This cuteness is a security feature,” Kobeissi explained in the talk. “Because you’re making accessibility and ease-of-use security properties that way — if those fail, it’s just the same as having encryption failure.”
Even if Cryptocat never made it to the mainstream, privacy activists who care about spreading encryption use should take Kobeissi’s point to heart. There is a relatively simple solution that will make the public just as pumped about its secure communication tools as it is about Snapchat’s doggy-face filters: Make it cute.
Of the current mobile encryption services out there, Signal has obviously taken the hint. It may not have a mascot quite yet, but creator Moxie Marlinspike says all of its functions were made with normal people in mind, given “there’s only like, 30 crypto enthusiasts.” As a result, it has amassed “millions” of users.
“It’s designed to be simple,” he told me. “It abstracts all the complexity and cryptography away from the people who use it. The basic user experience is: you install the app, it works just like any other messenger, except everything is end-to-end encrypted.”
Though Marlinspike doesn’t intend for Signal to compete with other messaging apps, he does want to set a precedent of how to securely communicate. For instance, the app’s recently added GIF feature demonstrates that it’s possible to search through a service like GIPHY while still preserving a user’s anonymity.
“By doing that, we’re also setting the stage for other people to incorporate those things in the future.”
A functionality to securely share Jennifer Lawrence–reaction clips might not quite meet the Care Bear–esque digital-landscape requirements we’ve come to expect as tech users, but it’s a start. To wit: My ex-GroupMe crew tested that functionality with a Bill Nye GIF mere seconds after moving to Signal. “I’m glad GIFs work just as well!” one member said.
Branding an otherwise inscrutable tech company with a lovable animal mascot or filling it with adorable emoji for the sake of establishing an emotional connection with users is not a new strategy. (Literally the only thing I know about Linux is that it’s represented by a dumb-looking penguin.) But in the context of messaging-app ecosystems, the characters you can use to communicate with friends take on even more significance. Apple’s native messaging app pioneered the importance of emoji, which have become a second language on a number of platforms; Google’s signature blob faces are a natural form of punctuation in Hangouts and on Android; Facebook’s Pusheen cat sticker set is a ray of light in an otherwise incredibly annoying service; and Snapchat has capitalized on the personalization of these stickers with Bitmoji. Even if they’re part of a marketing ploy, each service-specific illustration set functions as something human to latch on to in an otherwise intangible landscape.
For encrypted-messaging apps to truly break into the mainstream, they need their own cast of characters, and their own personalities, too.