Signal, a messaging app that rivals WhatsApp, and a internet browser made by Jack Ma’s Alibaba appear to have been blocked in China, as Beijing continues to crack down on tech firms and social media sites.
Signal users in China reported on other platforms that they had difficulties working the app from Monday evening, including not being able to send messages, the Washington Post reported.
Despite this, users can still access Signal via a virtual private network (VPN), which hides users’ locations.
“Signal has been walled,” users wrote on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, the Post reported.
The app is still available for download via Apple’s China App Store, CNBC reported, but it’s unclear whether it will remain on the site for much longer.
Signal didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The free messaging app offers end-to-end encryption, making it very difficult for third parties, including authorities, to see messages sent on the app. Signal is popular among tech giants, cybersecurity experts, journalists, and government officials.
Alibaba UC Browser pulled from app stores
Ecommerce group Alibaba had its internet browser pulled from Chinese app stores on Tuesday, the Financial Times first reported. Chinese authorities accused group’s UC Browser of promoting misleading online ads that directed patients to private hospitals instead of public ones.
App stores operated by Chinese tech companies including Huawei, Xiaomi, and Tencent have blocked downloads or removed the browser, the FT reported.
It’s the latest hit to Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma. Last year, Chinese authorities halted a $37 billion initial public offering of Ant Group, Alibaba’s fintech affiliate.
Buzzy social media app Clubhouse was also blocked in China on February 8, after people flocked to it to discuss political and sensitive topics, such as Xinjiang’s Uighur detention camps. Clubhouse conversations aren’t recorded, making them difficult to monitor, and access is available by invitation only.
The app sent users a notification asking them to sign off on updated terms and conditions, which stipulated it could share reams of metadata – including their phone numbers, locations, and contacts – with its parent company Facebook. If users did not consent, the notification said, they would lose access to WhatsApp.
The notification shocked users, at least some of whom use WhatsApp because the encrypted messaging app touts itself as privacy-focused. High-profile figures including Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, recommended users switch to Signal, a much smaller rival encrypted messaging app.
WhatsApp soon went into damage-control mode, putting up a new FAQ about the policy change and delaying the deadline for users to agree to the new terms and conditions from February 8 until May 15.
As it happens, it doesn’t look like anything has really changed about how WhatsApp shares data with Facebook.
The updates to T&Cs were solely to facilitate business accounts on WhatsApp to link up with Facebook’s back-end analytics infrastructure, WhatsApp said. They do not change anything about the way an average user’s data gets passed back to Facebook, it said.
WhatsApp gave users 30 days to opt out of sharing some data with Facebook back in 2016 – Wired reported that this opt-out would still be honored, and WhatsApp confirmed the report to Insider.
What WhatsApp accidentally did with its notification was to highlight to users exactly how much of their data it was already sending back to the Facebook mothership.
“I suspect people were alarmed by being reacquainted with what WhatsApp already share”
Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Surrey, said WhatsApp made new T&Cs look a lot more scary to users by telling them they’d lose access if they didn’t consent.
“WhatsApp presented this as an ultimatum to users, which never goes down well: accept these new terms or stop using the service. They could perhaps have been a lot clearer up front about what the changes were, in which case many would have simply said okay,” Woodward said.
“I suspect people were alarmed by being reacquainted with what WhatsApp already share,” he said.
Professor Eerke Boiten of De Montfort University agreed that WhatsApp’s method of sending a notification with what appeared to be an ultimatum was a misstep.
“The main thing they got wrong was putting it into the users’ faces. They’ve alerted users to something that didn’t get massively worse […] in any significant sense, but was a looming problem all along,” Boiten told Insider.
WhatsApp’s shifting attitude to privacy has been a cause for concern among tech industry insiders and privacy advocates for a long time. The decision to increasingly link WhatsApp up with Facebook’s ad business is what drove its cofounder Brian Acton to leave the company – the same is reportedly true for cofounder Jan Koum.
Acton subsequently helped found the non-profit Signal Foundation, which backs Signal.
“The move from WhatsApp to Signal is maybe not justified by the immediate incidence, but in broader terms it’s a good thing,” Boiten added.
You can see the difference between how much data WhatsApp collects compared to Signal using the Apple App Store’s new privacy information feature. While WhatsApp cannot read the contents of messages because they are encrypted, it is able to hoover up metadata – i.e., data about an account and its messaging. That includes information like your phone number, as well as who you’re messaging and when.
Woodward also pointed to WhatsApp’s collection of metadata. “The perverse thing is that WhatsApp encryption is based upon the same as used by Signal, but whilst [WhatsApp] keep the content if your messages confidential they do harvest some metadata, and knowing who talked to whom, when and for how can be valuable data in targeting advertising by identifying affinity group,” he said.
Signal’s focus on privacy does come with a tradeoff: If you make it impossible to gather things like metadata tracking down illegal activity on a messaging app becomes difficult. Signal employees are reportedly worried the company’s explosive growth could mean it attracts extremists, the Verge reported.
But CEO Moxie Marlinspike thinks the benefits of a truly private messenger outweigh the potential abuses.
“I want us as an organization to be really careful about doing things that make Signal less effective for those sort of bad actors if it would also make Signal less effective for the types of actors that we want to support and encourage […] Because I think that the latter have an outsized risk profile. There’s an asymmetry there, where it could end up affecting them more dramatically,” Marlinspike told the Verge.
While the new WhatsApp notification appears to be a PR blunder, Woodward doesn’t think WhatsApp is in deep trouble long-term.
“WhatsApp still has a critical mass of users and many are quite relaxed about the unwritten social contract that says you can use our service for free in return for us using your data to make a profit,” he said.
Employees at encrypted-messaging app Signal are worried that an explosion in growth – prompted by users moving over from rival WhatsApp – could cause extremism to spread on the platform, according to a new report from The Verge.
An engineer called Gregg Bernstein, who left Signal this month, told the Verge that Signal’s CEO Moxie Marlinspike was worryingly passive at the prospect of extremists using the platform to organize.
“It’s not only that Signal doesn’t have these policies in place. But they’ve been resistant to even considering what a policy might look like,” said Bernstein.
He said that after President Donald Trump told the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” Marlinspike was asked at a company all-hands meeting how Signal planned to prevent extremists from organizing on the app.
“The response was: if and when people start abusing Signal or doing things that we think are terrible, we’ll say something […] You could see a lot of jaws dropping. That’s not a strategy – that’s just hoping things don’t go bad,” Bernstein said.
Signal is backed by the nonprofit Signal Foundation, which was started in 2018 with a $50 million loan by WhatsApp founder Brian Acton, and is popular among activists and dissidents for its rigorous approach to privacy.
A trade-off of strong privacy practices is that apps are less able to track and moderate harmful behavior. Marlinspike told the Verge he wanted to take a hands-off approach to moderating the app because it was a messaging platform, not social media.
“The overriding theme there is that we don’t want to be a media company. We’re not algorithmically amplifying content. We don’t have access to the content. And even within the app, there are not a lot of opportunities for amplification,” he said.
Marlinspike said he believed the benefit Signal gives to activists and dissidents outweighed the risk that extremists might use it.
“I want us as an organization to be really careful about doing things that make Signal less effective for those sort of bad actors if it would also make Signal less effective for the types of actors that we want to support and encourage […] Because I think that the latter have an outsized risk profile. There’s an asymmetry there, where it could end up affecting them more dramatically,” he said.
Downloads of the app surged after WhatsApp informed users of changes to terms of service related to messaging business accounts. WhatsApp scrambled to explain that its data sharing practices with Facebook, its parent company, weren’t changing, and that the new terms and conditions did not affect messaged to friends and family – but by then many users had already downloaded Signal.
Signal isn’t the only encrypted messaging app facing accusations of inaction over hate speech.
Former US ambassador Marc Ginsberg on Monday filed lawsuits against Apple and Google, petitioning them both to boot encrypted messaging app Telegram – which also received a big user boost from the WhatsApp exodus – off their app stores.
Ginsberg said the platform had harbored extremists, and pointed to the fact both Apple and Google banned Parler, a social media app popular with the far-right, from their stores.