The latest WhatsApp update on user privacy and recent Apple privacy row over Facebook has made many question their data privacy and if they should continue using the popular instant messaging app. User privacy being the prime focus of all these debates, people are rightly turning their heads to the new encrypted messaging app, Signal.
Signal is currently arguably the best end-to-end encrypted messaging app that offers a plethora of security features. Whether you are trying to protect sensitive conversations from your govt or looking for an alternative when the popular communication apps are taken down, Signal has emerged as a reliable source to stay connected for the people around the world.
While Signal is not the only end-to-end encryption app available, it is different. Compared to iMessage and Telegram, Signal’s source code was available for cryptographers allowing them to test the app for its flaws and find potential loopholes. As of now, it appears to be your best for end-to-encrypted messaging.
If you have become concerned about your user privacy lately, I recommend making a switch to Signal. And if you decided to do so, here’s a detailed guide on how to use Signal on your Android, iOS and web platform and make the most out of it. After all, it is only fair to guide you through this transition after making a recommendation.
Setup is easy
Signal is available for both Android and iOS platform. You can download the app on the iPhone and Android devices from the Apps Store and Play Store, respectively. You can also use it on your Windows PC through the Signal desktop app.
The app requires you to use a phone number to register. If you are in the US and other countries, where Google Voice is supported, you use the Google Voice number to register. During the setup, make sure to enter a four-digit pin code for the app.
Signal also requires you to let it access your contact list. However, it stores all the data in your local storage and not in the cloud, which is a safer option. Occasionally, the app may send you notifications notifying of your contacts joining Signal. Which Signal says it does not keep track of any data collected for the purpose. You can disable this notification from Settings > Notifications > toggle off Contact Joined Signal.
Signal offers basic customizations option to change the appearance of the app. Go to Profile and tap on Appearance. You can choose between a dark or light theme and choose a default language for the app interface.
Default Messaging app
You can make Signal your default messaging app on your Android device. To do this, tap on your Signal profile, tap on SSM and MMS, choose SMS Disabled. Tap on Yes to change the default messaging app. You can also make changes from your Android’s default app settings. For iOS users, Apple does not allow users to change the default messaging app.
The newly introduced PINs feature makes it easier to move with your account when moving to a new device. While the app claims to keep information stored with Signal encrypted, some may see it as a potential security flaw. Users can, however, disable PINs by going to Profile > Advanced > Advanced Pin Settings > Disable PIN.
If you disable the PIN, you will lose all data when you re-register Signal unless you manually back up and restore. Disabling the PIN will also disable the Registration Lock feature.
When enabled, Registration Lock will require your Signal PIN to register your phone number with Signal again. If you don’t have the PIN or forget it, you will be locked out of your Signal account for seven days. To enable this, go to Settings, tap on Privacy and scroll down to the Signal PIN section. Tap on Registration Lock to enable or disable the feature.
Choose what to see
Similar to other messaging apps, Signal shows notifications with content and name. However, with Signal, you can customize what appears on your screen. After all, what’s the use of a user privacy-focused app if the messages are there to see for everyone, at a glance. To manage what Signal can show on your screen, go to your Profile and tap on Notifications. Tap on Show and select No name or message to hide it all. Selecting Name Only will only show the sender’s name and not the message.
You can also mute notifications for messages, calls and events. Tap on Priority, and you can further control Signal settings for your Android device including lock screen settings. You can also mute notifications for a specific user/conversation for a set time by tapping on the message thread, then the contact header, and selecting Mute. Set a duration for a day, week, or a year.
Signal offers great control over who can access its content with the Screen Lock option. Head over to Profile > Privacy, and tap on Screen Lock. Once enabled, it will lock Signal access with Android screen lock or fingerprint. Android users can also set screen lock inactivity timeout that lets you set the Screen Lock feature to kick in after a certain duration.
Make Encrypted Calls
Taking on WhatsApp is not just about making instant messaging secure. Millions of people also use the app to make calls. Fortunately, Signal has that aspect covered as well and covered well with end-to-end encrypted calls.
To make a call, tap the Pencil icon, pick a contact and then tap on the call icon in the upper right corner, just like you would do on WhatsApp. For the extra cautious in you, enable the Always relay calls option by going into Profile > Privacy > Communications. It relays all calls through the Signal server to avoid revealing your IP address to your contact. However, relaying calls can reduce quality.
Automatically Delete Messages
Signal allows you to delete all the messages manually; Similar to WhatsApp, if you are running the recent version of Signal, you can use the Delete Message for Everyone option by long pressing on any message to delete the message for from both the devices.
What’s new on Signal is the Disappearing Messages option. It allows you to set a duration for the sent message and ensure that it is deleted on both ends of a thread.
To set up a disappearing message, pick a contact, tap three dots on the right corner and select Disappearing Message. You can set a timer for the future messages anywhere from 5 seconds to 1 week, and tap OK. Notice a time icon showing up in your thread, highlighting it to be a disappearing message. The message will disappear as per the schedule.
You can alter the disappearing timing in any way after sending the message. So, make sure to check the disappearing messages setting before composing messages. The chat page also shows your current disappearing message status as a reminder. Note that each time you set or change Disappearing Message setting, the recipient also receives a notification notifying the same.
You can choose to keep forever or set them to delete after 30 days, six months or one year automatically. To manage message history, tap on Profile and select Storage. Tap on Keep Messages and choose Forever or other options as per your preference. There is an option to instantly clear all message history and set conversation length limit if you fancy such customizations.
Manage shared media
Similar to other messaging apps, You can use Signal to send photos and videos. You can choose to send something from your gallery, or fire up your smartphone camera, capture a selfie-and hit send. That said, Signal has added some additional privacy features to help you control how your media is used.
Sending a media captured directly within the Signal app using your camera is not saved on your gallery and only stays in the chat unless you to choose to save the image by tapping the Download icon. This is good! This will not only prevent your storage from filling up failed selfies, but you are also unlikely to leave behind something you don’t to save in the gallery app.
If you don’t want the recipient to keep the sent media, tap the Infinity icon in the left corner after clicking the image and it will turn to 1X and hit send. This will ensure the media is deleted as soon as it’s been viewed.
Furthermore, the app offers the basic media editing features, including adding captions, crop, sticker and Blur. The Blur feature, when used automatically blurs all the faces it detects in the image with an option to manually do it as well.
Backup and Restore Signal Backups
Signals stores all the chats, media, documents and others locally on your device. To restore the backup or transfer your account you must have access to your account old device, phone number and the backup file.
You can manually enable backups on Signal by going to Profile > Chats and media > Chat backups. Tap on Turn On. Make sure to note down the 30-digit passphrase. Without it, you will not be able to restore a backup. Tap the confirmation box and then tap on Enable Backups.
Next, manually move the Signal folder to a new/backup device. You can find the backup folder under Settings > Chats and media > Backup folder. To restore the backup, download Signal on your phone, and move the backup folder to your new device. Enter the 30-digit passphrase before registering with your phone number and Signal will automatically detect and restore the file.
Deleting Signal Account
Signal allows you to delete your account from the app completely. Deleting the account will delete your account info, profile photo and all your messages. To delete your account, go to Settings (tap the profile icon) > Advanced > Delete Account. Select your country and then enter your phone number. Tap on Delete account to permanently delete your Signal account.
In this guide, I have focused on the core features of Signal focusing on user privacy. While there are tons of other features to explore, here are a few more that will make you feel homelike after switching from WhatsApp.
Block Users – Allows you to keep the intruders away from creeping in with irrelevant conversations. To block a user, tap on the user profile and choose Block This User option. You can also do it from Settings > Privacy > Blocked Users. Tap on Add blocked user and pick a contact that you want to block.
Screen Security: On Android, you can disable others from taking screenshots of your screen in the recents list and inside the app. To enable this, go to Settings > Privacy and toggle the switch to enable Screen Security feature.
Read Receipts: Don’t want others to know if you have read their message? Well, head over to Settings > Privacy and disable Read Receipts. When disabled, you won’t be able to see read receipts from others as well.
Is All Good?
Not really. There are a few caveats that Signal needs to iron out to make the transition from WhatsApp to Signal smooth. Here are a few of them!
The Signal Desktop app
While Signal offers a desktop client for its app, the design is a bare minimum. The Desktop app also lacks security for an app that claims to be private and offers end-to-end encrypted messaging.
You can use it, and for that matter, anyone with access to your PC can launch and use the app without requiring any authentication. It continues to work even if your phone is off. Requiring the user to authenticate with a PIN after signing to their PC can add more security to the desktop client.
I have shared just enough to get you started with Signal. You will continue to explore new privacy settings and other handy features offered by the app as you continue to use it. Remember that the app does not make you invincible, and it is just a secure tool to interact without the fear of being heard and help you maximize the security of your most sensitive conversation.