Trump's victory sparks unprecedented downloads of encrypted chat app Signal

A presidential campaign rocked by e-mail hacks followed by the victory of a candidate who wants to increase government surveillance has sent Americans to new corners of the Internet.

Fearful of private communications being used against them, millions of people are trying out once-obscure apps and services that promise stronger security than their more popular rivals.

The 2-year-old encrypted text and calling app Signal said no single event had ever led to such sustained interest as last week’s election.

“Many users have reported that their entire social circle switched to Signal in the past week,” said Moxie Marlinspike, founder of the San Francisco nonprofit developing the app, which doesn’t store conversations online and scrambles them as they transmit across the Internet.

Post-election downloads have outpaced normal figures by 400%. Marlinspike declined to state the exact number of downloads.

Governments have tapped into unencrypted communication lines for intelligence gathering, and law enforcement regularly obtains court orders to access information stored without the sort of protections Signal provides.

Some have downloaded Signal as part of organizing efforts for a wave of protests against Donald Trump’s election in recent days. Others were urged by friends in technology or public policy to use virtual private network software as a way to mask their online activity.

The president-elect has said he wants more traditional and digital surveillance worldwide to secure America's borders and to combat terrorism. 

His statements have left some Muslims, undocumented immigrants and political activists feeling vulnerable. They fear their digital trails could be scoured by government officers looking for any opportunity to penalize them.

A growing number of digital communication tools, including Apple’s iMessage and Snapchat, have encryption features that restrict anyone but the sender and recipients from seeing a message. But many options have holes.

Security experts regard Signal, though imperfect itself, as the closest thing to a gold standard in secret communication. To stay private as intended, both sides of a conversation need to use Signal. And that's the challenge. Moving entire friends’ circles to a new chat platform — though Marlinspike notes it’s happened — hasn’t proved easy for many an app. To some, using an encrypted chat app isn’t the solution either, as it could be a red flag to investigators.

Still, Marlinspike said the initial data show the new users joining the millions already on Signal are becoming daily participants. Consistent engagement increases the chance Signal goes mainstream.

Adam Englander, senior vice president and general counsel at a Los Angeles public relations firm, said he’s unsure if his days-old Signal account will become a go-to option for him.

His girlfriend and tech-minded acquaintances are the only ones on it. But recent cyberattacks had him worried.

The White House has said Russian hackers made public emails of Democratic political leaders, including those on Hillary Clinton's campaign team. Trump used information from the leaks to allege Clinton officials colluded with the Justice Department to squash an investigation into how she managed e-mails as Secretary of State.

Englander doesn’t want to end up a victim of cyberespionage.

“I may just limit it to those messages I feel I wouldn't want seen in the L.A. Times,” he said of using Signal.

paresh.dave@latimes.com / PGP

Twitter: @peard33

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