Encrypted Messaging Service 'Signal' Adds Video Call Option

Users of the Signal encrypted messaging and voice calling service, famously employed by National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, can now also use the app for encrypted video chats.

Open Whisper Systems, the software company that developed Signal, announced new public beta support for encrypted video calling yesterday. The release for both Android and iOS is built on "an entirely new calling infrastructure" that should also improve the voice call quality of the service, the company said.

First released in 2014, the Signal app is based on the Signal cryptographic protocol, which is also used for secure messaging by Google Allo, Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Such encrypted services are often used to provide secure communications for news tips and conversations between sources and journalists, among other purposes.

'Entirely New Calling Infrastructure'

Being rolled out in stages to enable feedback about its performance, the latest version of Signal also brings together what were once two different Open Whisper Systems applications, one to support texting and one designed to enable real-time voice calls, company founder Moxie Marlinspike wrote yesterday in a blog post.

"This represents an entirely new calling infrastructure for Signal, and should increase voice call quality as well," Marlinspike said. "We think it's a big improvement, but we're rolling it out in stages to collect feedback from people with different devices, networks, and regions in order to ensure there are no surprises when it's enabled for everyone by default."

The new encrypted video calling will only work between two Signal users who have both enabled the beta application. iPhone users will also be able to take advantage of new capabilities introduced with last year's iOS 10 update so they can answer incoming Signal calls with one touch directly from the lock screen.

Encryption Controversies Back in the News

Media organizations, including The New York Times, use Signal to encourage encrypted news tips from readers and other sources. The application has also been endorsed by Snowden, who in 2013 provided journalists with a large cache of classified documents detailing the widespread use of surveillance by the NSA.

The mainstream use of encryption to protect electronically transmitted information has long been a source of frustration for many in the intelligence, law enforcement and political communities. FBI Director James Comey and former CIA Director James Woolsey are among officials who have pushed for security backdoors that would allow intelligence agencies to bypass encryption protections.

Controversies about encrypted communications have also erupted again in the news recently. For example, BuzzFeed reported yesterday that two Republicans in Congress have called for an investigation on the Environmental Protection Agency's use of encryption. Meanwhile, other news outlets reported this week that some White House staffers have been using an encrypted chat app called Confide that automatically deletes messages after they are received and read.

Mike PalmerComment