When encryption The Signal communications app, launched almost seven years ago, brought the promise of the strongest encryption available to a very simple interface for calling and texting. Now Signal is incorporating what it describes as a way to bring that same ease of use and security to a fundamentally different third feature: payments.
Signal plans to announce today that it is implementing the ability for some of its users to send money to each other within its rapidly growing encrypted communications network. To do so, it has built-in support for the MobileCoin cryptocurrency, a form of digital cash designed to work efficiently on mobile devices while protecting users’ privacy and even their anonymity. For now, the paid feature will be available only to users in the UK, and only on iOS and Android, not on the desktop. However, the new feature represents an experiment in bringing privacy-focused cryptocurrencies to millions of users, something Signal hopes to eventually expand around the world.
Moxie Marlinspike, the creator of Signal and CEO of the nonprofit that runs it, describes the new payments feature as an attempt to extend Signal’s privacy protections to payments with the same seamless experience that Signal has offered for encrypted conversations. “There is a palpable difference in how it feels to communicate through Signal, knowing that you are not being watched or heard, compared to other communication platforms,” Marlinspike told WIRED in an interview. “I would like to come to a world where you can not only feel that when you talk to your therapist about Signal, but also when you pay your therapist for the Signal session.”
Unlike the payment features built into other messaging apps like WhatsApp or iMessage, which typically link a user’s bank account, Signal wants to provide a way to send money that no one other than the sender and recipient can observe or track. Financial institutions routinely sell their users’ private transaction data to marketers and advertisers or hand it over to law enforcement. Bitcoin wouldn’t work either. As with many cryptocurrencies, its protections against fraud and counterfeiting are based on a public distributed ledger, a blockchain, which in many cases can reveal who sent money to whom.
So Signal looked to privacy-preserving cryptocurrencies, or “privacy coins,” which bypass banks and are specially designed to protect user identities and their payment details on a blockchain. While more established privacy-focused cryptocurrencies like Zcash and Monero have been used more widely and possibly better tested, Marlinspike says that Signal chose to integrate MobileCoin because it has the smoothest user experience on mobile devices, requires little storage space. on the phone and it only takes seconds for transactions to be confirmed. Zcash or Monero payments, on the other hand, take a few minutes to complete transactions. “You are using a cryptocurrency with state-of-the-art encryption, but from your perspective, it feels like Venmo,” says MobileCoin founder Josh Goldbard.
Signal’s choice of MobileCoin comes as no surprise to anyone observing the development of the cryptocurrency since its launch in late 2017. Marlinspike has served as a paid technical advisor for the project since its inception, and has worked with Goldbard to design the mechanics of MobileCoin with possible future integration into apps like Signal in mind. (However, Marlinspike points out that neither he nor Signal own MobileCoins.)
MobileCoin only started trading as a real currency with real value in December of last year; Until then, it was running as a worthless “testnet,” and its 250 million coins, around $ 69 each, are currently worth nearly $ 17 billion in total. . For now, it is for sale on a single cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, which does not allow exchanges by US users, although Goldbard says there is no reason why US exchanges Signal chose to implement its UK MobileCoin integration partly because US users can’t buy the crypto yet, Marlinspike says, but also because it represents a smaller English-speaking user base to test out the new payments. feature, which you hope will make it easier to diagnose problems.
Payments present a difficult dilemma for Signal: To keep up with the features of other messaging apps, you must allow users to send money. But doing so without compromising its excellent privacy guarantees poses a unique challenge. Despite the intentions of Marlinspike and MobileCoin, using any cryptocurrency today is still much more complex than Signal’s other features. Even if users can send MobileCoin back and forth, they will likely still need to charge them in traditional currency to spend, given that MobileCoin is not widely accepted for real world goods and services. And aside from that need for exchanges and the lack of availability in the US, MobileCoin also remains even more volatile than older cryptocurrencies, with constant price fluctuations that will significantly change balances in a user’s Signal wallet in over the course of days or even hours. hardly the kind of problem Venmo users have to deal with. (Since March 27, MobileCoin’s value has soared nearly 600 percent, possibly due to rumors of the impending integration of Signal or possibly the result of a “brief squeeze”.)