June 4, 2020

Secure messaging app Signal introduces face blur to protect protesters’ identities

By Robert Scammell

Secure messaging app Signal has introduced a face blur feature to help protect the privacy of the people taking part in Black Lives Matter protests in the US and around the world.

The face blur tool is available in the latest version of Signal for Android and iOS, which has been submitted to each respective app store.

If selected, faces will automatically be blurred. If the software misses any faces users will be able to manually blur them. The blurring will take locally on the phone, as opposed to sending the pictures to a server.

“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-organising around the country to figure it out,” said Signal co-founder Moxie Marlinspike in a blog post published 3 June.

Signal is popular among privacy advocates and is used by journalists and human rights activists. It is widely considered to be more secure than alternatives such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

Encrypted messaging apps have been in high demand during the protests, which broke out across the US after 46-year-old African-American George Floyd died when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

On the weekend of 30 May, 37,000 people downloaded Signal – a record for the app.

Community alert app Citizen was downloaded nearly 50,000 times that same weekend, according to Apptopia, a firm that monitors app downloads.

While face blurring can make it harder to identify people, it can be possible to reverse some blurring processes. And those identified by CCTV, as well as by other people’s cameras, will have their identity revealed.

Signal plans to help protect the identity of protesters outside of the app by “distributing versatile face coverings to the community free of charge”.

The firm is looking for a manufacturer that can meet the high demand for such coverings.

“One immediate thing seems clear: 2020 is a pretty good year to cover your face,” said Marlinspike.


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