It was an unexpected and chilling moment.
As is my wont, as I made supper Monday night I had on in the background the Japanese international television station, NHK. The program was about learning the Japanese language by reading the news.
This program each week picks a news story and helps the viewer translate it. I despair of ever learning Japanese, because I do not have the time necessary to find out whether I have the brain cells necessary to achieve proficiency. But I might pick up a little here and there, which seems to be how most American newscasters learned what English they can speak. (And I do not even aspire to be a Japanese newscaster.)
This week’s program had to do with preparations for earthquakes, which are common in Japan. I wasn’t listening closely, but suddenly the subject changed to preparations for the arrival of a North Korean ballistic missile. Was this part of the show?
No, no it wasn’t. NHK had broken format to advise the people of Japan to take cover immediately. It applied to all of Japan at first, then just the northern prefectures of Honshu (the main island) and Hokkaido (the largest northern island). The Norks had indeed shot a rocket toward though not necessarily at Japan. Given North Korea’s level of technical competence, even if it weren’t a deliberate attack (which there was no reason to think it was, but with North Korea you never know), something could go wrong. The Japanese for the last 77 years have been especially sensitive to surprises from the sky, and who can blame them.
After a tense hour or so it was clear that the rocket had gone over Japan and crashed into the Pacific far to the east, and fear turned to anger (a common progression).
I dropped a couple of quick notes to friends who are interested in such things. The application I used was something called Signal, which you should get and use if you haven’t and don’t already, and about which more in a minute.
These days there’s very little that’s beyond imagination. There is a Russian megalomaniac who likes to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. There is an American president who is senile (and, apparently, an ineffective amateur necromancer). Europe is at war in one place and on the brink of it elsewhere. Our communication is increasingly tied to the internet, so it’s possible that it could be cut off all at once or, more insidiously, our “private” communication be monitored and used against us by malevolent people in government and elsewhere. (Actually, that is happening, all the time and nearly everywhere, right now.) Or, for the silly set, we could be canceled by Twitter somebody-wannabes. Many millions of people were killed in the last two years by a virus that um, yeah, sprang up from nowhere.
Identifying threats is ever more difficult. Living underground on freeze-dried food that’s good for 25 years, wearing a tinfoil hat, and digging a trench around your house that can be flooded with gasoline and set alight are for the moment over-reactions, probably.
Taking simple precautions to preserve things like privacy, though, is good practice.
Which brings me to Signal, one of the few applications (alongside ProtonMail and ProtonVPN and careful browser selection and configuration) that I think are essential on the mobile devices, tablets, and desktop and notebook computers of responsible adults.
More and more people send text messages to each other, often to convey important information that should be kept private. Most commonly used is a protocol called “SMS,” for “short messaging service.” It is ubiquitous, but it’s only a little more private than messages transmitted through skywriting. It is not secure at all. When times become (more) perilous, people who need to dash off a quick bit of information will gravitate to SMS and get thereby exposed to the danger, because their messages and identities are plain to see.
Likewise, our telephone conversations are fairly easily monitored.
There are those who provide what they falsely claim is reassurance, which is usually some variation of “why do you want secrecy if you have nothing to hide?” This does not survive even an instant’s scrutiny. Why would you draw the bedroom drapes if you have nothing to hide? Why aren’t our showers surrounded by glass walls if we have nothing to hide? Why would you call the police to arrest a window peeper if you have nothing to hide?
It’s even worse on the internet, whose biggest corporations have built their businesses out of selling that which is none of their business. It is your right — I’d argue your responsibility and even your obligation — to confound them wherever possible. Short of shutting down Google and lining up its executives against the wall and offering them blindfolds and cigarettes, which happy though it is to think about is impractical, we need to undertake other measures, in the same way and for the same reasons that we put locks on our doors.
Signal is one of the best and easiest of these measures.
First, it is free in every sense of the word. It costs you nothing and demands nothing. You may examine its source code if you like. It carries no advertisements and gathers no information. It is a nonprofit corporation and cannot be bought by Google or whatever Facebook is calling itself this year. Messages, calls, and everything else you do with it, including group chats, are encrypted from your phone or computer all the way to decryption by the designated recipient. No part of it is in the clear between the two nor does it ever reside on Signal servers, so there’s nothing anyone could see or hear. It is as secure as a thing can be.
Ah, you might say, but doesn’t this make it dangerous, a tool for terrorists and other criminals? And you would have the beginnings of a point, but it’s the same point that could be used in opposing automobiles because they’re an escape tool of bank robbers.
Signal, and the similar though less private Telegram, are how we get much of the information we receive from places like Ukraine. It is a tool for freedom. You could argue that inasmuch as freedom can be abused there should be no freedom, but you’ll get little support for that position outside Twitter, university faculty lounges, and Washington, D.C. (well, and Moscow and Peking).
It is simple to use: download it from your device’s app repository or from Signal’s download page. Installation is straightforward. If you’re using a desktop version you need to put Signal on your phone — I know — and associate the desktop installation with the telephonic one. That’s pretty much it, though you can (and probably should) give it access to your contacts. It will highlight those who are already on Signal. You can set it as your default messaging application, so that texts of all sorts will arrive in your Signal application. It makes it clear that SMS ones are not Signal messages and are therefore unsecure (and you should tell your correspondent to get Signal).
You can use it for text messages, of course, but also for voice telephone calls (for free, even overseas), and video calls for groups of up to 40, and all of it encrypted so it’s free from eavesdroppers (unlike that other video conferencing application that got so famous during the pandemic). This means, too, that you can make calls in places where there’s no cellular service but there is wifi (though these calls can be made only to other Signal users, I believe).
You can set messages to disappear after a certain period of time, from after one read to weeks, and at the appropriate moment they’re gone from all devices that ever bore them, including your own. This applies to photographs as well, making it something that people who have next-day regrets after boozy evenings wish they had on their plain, unsecure SMS applications. (Signal goes so far as to strip the metadata from photographs sent over it, lest GPS tags reveal a location, and will let you, in-app, blur identifying features such as signs and even faces or anything else.)
Elon Musk immediately endorsed switching to Signal, twittering, “Use Signal,” which was promptly re-twitted by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Signal downloads were in the neighborhood of a million per day for a while thereafter.
The fact is, there is no reason not to get and use Signal and every reason to do so.