The Signal App and the Danger of Privacy at All Costs

Article by Reid Blackman: “…One should always worry when a person or an organization places one value above all. The moral fabric of our world is complex. It’s nuanced. Sensitivity to moral nuance is difficult, but unwavering support of one principle to rule them all is morally dangerous.

The way Signal wields the word “surveillance” reflects its coarsegrained understanding of morality. To the company, surveillance covers everything from a server holding encrypted data that no one looks at to a law enforcement agent reading data after obtaining a warrant to East Germany randomly tapping citizens’ phones. One cannot think carefully about the value of privacy — including its relative importance to other values in particular contexts — with such a broad brush.

What’s more, the company’s proposition that if anyone has access to data, then many unauthorized people probably will have access to that data is false. This response reflects a lack of faith in good governance, which is essential to any well-functioning organization or community seeking to keep its members and society at large safe from bad actors. There are some people who have access to the nuclear launch codes, but “Mission Impossible” movies aside, we’re not particularly worried about a slippery slope leading to lots of unauthorized people having access to those codes.

I am drawing attention to Signal, but there’s a bigger issue here: Small groups of technologists are developing and deploying applications of their technologies for explicitly ideological reasons, with those ideologies baked into the technologies. To use those technologies is to use a tool that comes with an ethical or political bent.

Signal is pushing against businesses like Meta that turn users of their social media platforms into the product by selling user data. But Signal embeds within itself a rather extreme conception of privacy, and scaling its technology is scaling its ideology. Signal’s users may not be the product, but they ‌‌are the witting or unwitting advocates of the moral views of the 40 or so people who operate Signal.

There’s something somewhat sneaky in all this (though I don’t think the owners of Signal intend to be sneaky). Usually advocates know that they’re advocates. They engage in some level of deliberation and reach the conclusion that a set of beliefs is for them…(More)”.