What is SMS and why is it bad?

When you send messages using your cell phone’s built in messaging app you are using SMS messages. These messages are the equivelant of a postcard you send in the mail. Anything you write on a postcard can be read by whoever handles it while it is being delivered to your intended recipient. A postcard has no way to prevent anyone in possesion of it from reading what you have written. In exactly the same way your SMS messages are not protected at all and anyone who handles your SMS message as it is being delivered can read the contents of your message.

If you prefer to send letters enclosed in an envolope so that only the intended recipient can read it, then that is why you need to install an app like Signal to protect your chats. In fact using Signal is even more secure than a regular letter. Anyone could be malicious and open your letter to someone else and read the contents. But then the recipient would know it has been read from the damage to the envelope. But using Signal is like putting that letter inside of a box locked with a key that only you and the recipient have and then sending that box through the mail. No one handling the locked box can access the letter to attempt to read it. Secure messaging apps like Signal guarantee the privacy of the messages you are sending.

I have chosen Signal as the first step towards protecting your chats because it is very easy to use and works almost identical to the way you are already sending SMS messages. You use phone numbers to contact people over Signal just like SMS. Signal is also one of the most widely used secure messaging apps and has some of the most advanced encryption methods to guarentee the privacy of your messages.

OK let's do it!

First head on over to the official Signal install guide and install the app on your Android or Apple iOS phone. Then return here and I will give you some additional tips.

Follow the official Signal install guide

OK now that you have Signal installed you can invite others to install Signal to chat securely with you. Open one of the previous SMS chat sessions you have with someone and there will be a message at the top prompting you to invite this person to Signal. Click on this prompt and a link will be created to send to them (using SMS for now). Maybe send them a link to this website too!

Once they have installed Signal you should get a message that informs you they have joined Signal and now you can chat with them.

Here are some additional features in Signal:

  • The Safety Number
    Every conversation in Signal is assigned a unique "Safety Number". If this number ever changes, that means that either the person did something like get a new phone, or it could mean someone has tried to break into your secured conversation. Reach out to this person using a method other than through Signal (because your Signal connection may be compromised) and verify with them if they had made some change.
    To view the safety number assigned to a conversation go into that conversation in Signal, touch on the 3 dots on the top right corner and select "Conversation settings".

    Scroll down until you see an option to "View safety number" and select it.

    This is the unique number that only this conversation has.

    To verify this number you will need to compare the number on your phone with the number that your conversation partner has on their phone. If you are with the person you can tap on the QR barcode to scan their barcode with your phone to verify the number. If you are not able to meet in person then have them send you their number through another communications channel such as email. Then you can compare the number they send you with what is on your phone, and if they are the same swipe on the "Verified" toggle to mark it. If this number ever changes then you will be notified.
    For more details see: Signal's Support page on Safety Numbers

  • Signal message/Unsecured SMS indicator for Android
    On Android phones Signal can be used as your SMS messenger as well. This makes sending messages easy since you only need one app for both Signal message and SMS messages. You may forget which people use Signal or SMS, but there is an easy way to know this. When you go to send a message the box where you type your message will say either "Signal message" or "Unsecured SMS" in it before you have started typing anything. This is a good thing to check before typing your message so you know what type of message you are sending.

  • Disappearing messages
    The "Disappearing Messages" setting will cause messages to be automatically deleted from all devices after the specified time. This setting is good to use if you want to be sure your messages do not stay on any device for very long. Unfortunately the longest time frame is one week, I would prefer to have something like 1 or 2 months also as an option but you can only choose from the option that are given.

    To enable this feature touch on the 3 dots on the top right corner of a Signal secured chat. Select "Disappearing Messages", then select a time from the options and touch "OK"

  • Video chat!
    You can create a Signal to Signal video chat too! In an existing Signal chat session touch on the phone icon in the top right corner of the screen. This will start a call to your chat partner. It does take a couple seconds to initiate a connection but be patient and hopefully the other side will pick up.

Great job, if you made it this far you are doing very well! Now you have taken a giant step towards protecting your information. You can stop here if you want and take time to get comfortable with using Signal as your new messaging app. Or you may continue on and get some additional guides on more advanced methods of protecting your chats.

Yes, let's keep going!

Signal is a great app but it does have one major drawback. To communicate you must give other people your phone number to connect with them over Signal. That was part of the design of Signal to make it easy to use. For friends and family that you already communicate with using your phone number that is fine. But what if you don’t want to give your phone number to someone but still want to communicate securely with them? There are other great options available for doing this so you don’t need to expose your phone number, and this is a site about protecting your information after all right?

So to continue on there is one important question you must think about. Will you be chatting using your phone exclusively, or would you like to be able to chat using multiple devices (even a desktop computer) and have all your chats available on all devices? So think of this as being the difference between only being able to get SMS messages on your phone, and being able to log into a social network (like Facebook) from anywhere and being able to continue a conversation from multiple devices.

Some apps can only be used on a single device while others can be used on multiple devices. The selection of apps for multiple devices is smaller, but this option is more convienient if you are switching between desktop computers and phones throughout your day.

I will only use one device
I want to use multiple devices