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Signal messaging app will now blur people’s faces during protests

Published Jun 4th, 2020 6:50AM EDT
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Image: Richard Vogel/AP/Shutterstock

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  • Signal app downloads have increased significantly in the United States, as protesters have been looking for end-to-end encrypted chat apps to secure their communications.
  • Signal also announced a brand new security feature, a tool that can detect and blur faces in photos automatically in support of the current protests against racism in the US and abroad.
  • The face blur feature is available in the latest Signal update, and the app can be installed on iPhone and Android.

Messaging apps that offer end-to-end encryption surge in popularity during protests. These are apps that can hide chats from anyone browsing through a phone, software backups, cloud data, and user account information obtained from tech companies. End-to-end encryption allows only the two parties in the conversation to view the contents of the chat, and some of these apps also offer password protection. Apple’s iMessage is end-to-end encrypted, as are Facebook’s WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal.

Telegram surged in popularity with protestors in Hong Kong last summer, and it’s now time for Signal to shine in the US, where more and more people have been downloading it since the George Floyd protests started last week.

The protests against police brutality were met with even more police brutality, with some people getting arrested without cause. This can explain why protestors might be interested in switching to apps that can protect communications, and which don’t collect that much useful metadata about users. Signal qualifies.

Services that monitor app downloads, like App Anie and Apptopia, noticed an increase in Signal downloads. This past weekend, the app was installed 37,000 times, Mashable reports. That’s a record for the app. Moreover, the app was downloaded 121,000 times in the US alone since May 25th, the report notes.

One of the app’s advantages over others is that Signal doesn’t collect other data about the user. Comparatively, your WhatsApp chat backups that may be stored in a cloud would not be encrypted. The following tweet from 2016 shows what kind of data Signal was able to provide when the company responded to a “subpoena from the Eastern District of Virginia.” Signal could only offer authorities information about the date and time a user registered with Signal, and the last date the user accessed it.

Signal also offers support for ephemeral messages, which means that you can set up your messages to disappear.

Encrypted messaging app Signal launches a new face blur tool that works automatically, on-device, on photos. Image source: Signal

The company announced a brand new feature on Wednesday, and that’s a tool that automatically blurs the faces in photos. “One immediate thing seems clear: 2020 is a pretty good year to cover your face,” Signal explained in a blog post, adding that it supports the protests against racism:

Right now, people around the world are marching and protesting against racism and police brutality, outraged by the most recent police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. At Signal, we support the people who have gone into the streets to make their voices heard. We believe that something in America needs to change, and even if we don’t know exactly how, we support and trust in the people who are self-organizing around the country to figure it out.

The face blurring tools are built into the latest version for Android and iOS, and it’ll detect faces and blur them automatically. It might miss some of them, but users will have a way to manually blur them. All the processing is done on-device, and no data leaves the phone.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.