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Signal messaging app not so private at all: Court documents show FBI can intercept messages there
By Ramon Tomey // Feb 24, 2021

Recently released court documents have shown that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can intercept encrypted messages in the Signal app. Federal authorities possess certain tools to access these encrypted correspondences, the documents said. The messaging app recently gained popularity following moves by Big Tech companies to curb free speech.


The documents filed by the Department of Justice were in relation to a recent gun-trafficking case in New York state. It contained screenshots of Signal messages between suspects discussing illegal weapons trading and attempted murder. Metadata accompanying the screenshots indicated that the correspondences were decrypted on their respective mobile phones.

Encrypted messages sent from iPhones with the Signal app installed can indeed be intercepted by authorities. However, these messages can only be intercepted when the mobile phone are in "partial AFU" mode – AFU meaning "after first unlock." The documents' revelation confirms that vulnerabilities of so-called encrypted messaging apps threaten to undermine privacy protections.

iPhones on AFU mode are more susceptible to data extraction. This also facilitates access to Signal messages by federal authorities and other unscrupulous parties. But how vulnerable a phone is to hacking will ultimately depend on how up to date its operating system is.

GrayKey and Cellebrite are two tools utilized by the FBI to bypass encryption, but it remains unclear which exact program did the federal agency use to access the messages. However, a Russian cyber-forensics expert has surmised that the FBI may have used GrayKey for the operation. ElcomSoft founder Vladimir Katalov said that GrayKey "uses some very advanced [approaches] using hardware vulnerabilities."

However, an investigative journalist claimed that the vulnerability in the Signal messaging app was not a software bug or flaw. Yasha Levine said the flaw the FBI is exploiting to decrypt the app's messages was a deliberate backdoor for law enforcement. The journalist warned that Signal "is not your friend" as it was created by a Central Intelligence Agency spinoff.

Levine continued that Signal received at least $3 million worth of funding from federal sources during a four-year period – despite the silence of the app's developer Open Whisper Systems and its founder Moxie Marlinspike. (Related: Signal is a government op.)

Signal's vulnerability comes amid the popularity of its competitor Telegram

Signal is not the only messaging app gaining popularity amid Big Tech censorship. The Telegram app hailing from Russia is also gaining ground as more and more users eschew WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. Both these apps have seen a steady increase in their download counts on both Google Play and the Apple App Store.

Mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower said in January 2021 that Signal saw 17.8 million app downloads during the week of Jan. 5 to Jan. 12. This constituted a more than 60 percent increase in its download count, having registered 285,000 downloads the previous week. Meanwhile, Telegram saw 15.7 million downloads during the week of Jan. 5 to Jan. 12 – almost twice its 7.6 million download count it registered the week prior.

The sudden spike in downloads for both encrypted messaging apps came amid the Jan. 6 Capitol riots two weeks before President Joe Biden officially served as U.S. president. The false flag attacks left five dead, including a Capitol police officer.

The New York Times reported that 25 million new users joined Telegram in the aftermath of the Capitol riots. The move was triggered by a massive purge by Twitter and Facebook on users they deemed as part of the unrest by inciting violence or spreading misinformation. Telegram founder Pavel Durov dubbed it as "the largest digital migration in history."

Durov has previously said that the app he established "has never yielded to pressure from officials who wanted [Telegram] to perform political censorship." (Related: CNN, NBC and New York Times want to destroy encrypted messaging apps like Signal and Telegram.)

Disinformation analyst Nina Jankowicz of the non-partisan research group Wilson Center remarked: "There's a real push and pull between the people that are using [encrypted messaging apps] … for good, and the people who are using them to undermine democracy. We see the same openness and sense of connection that is used by democratic activists opportunistically exploited by extremists."

Given Signal's vulnerability to law enforcement interference, Telegram appears to be the better free speech platform for now.

Visit Surveillance.news to read more about the flaws of Signal and other supposedly private messaging apps.

Sources include:





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