To put it bluntly, there are plenty of folks with good reason to be scared right now. As more and more of us continue to peacefully protest the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, uniformed officers are turning literal weapons of war against us, leaving an untold number of protestors, reporters, and bystanders with injuries ranging from permanent, to life-threatening, to fatal.
Photographs and videos are essential for protestors looking to hold those in power to account, but they come with their own risks for those keen on maintaining their digital privacy. Thankfully though, Signal — the excellent encrypted messaging app whose downloads have skyrocketed amid the current protests — is making things a bit easier. Today, company cofounder Moxie Marlinspike announced that the app would be baking face-blurring tech into the latest version of its iOS and Android apps.
“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,” she wrote. “One immediate thing seems clear: 2020 is a pretty good year to cover your face.”
With the new update, Signal users can tap the blur function to automatically obfuscate any faces the in-app AI detects in a photo. And because all automated systems are, let’s face it, less than perfect, users can also selectively blur out any faces or identifiers that the app might’ve missed the first time around.
Marlinspike clarified all processing happens directly on the user’s phone, which minimizes the chances that an unblurred photo might accidentally leak out.
A quick blur might be a good first step, but it’s definitely no silver bullet. A person’s identity can still be compromised by say, any unique tattoos or clothing that sneak into the line of sight. Aside from locking those down, anyone protective of their privacy should also make sure to scrub any sort of photo metadata that might accidentally betray the locale or identity of the photographer involved.
And even though people are downloading these sorts of privacy-preserving apps in record numbers over the past few days, it’s worth noting that these sorts of apps aren’t a silver bullet, either. For the most part, our digital lives are at the mercy of an infinite array of private companies, many of whom might not have our best interests at heart. Fighting against systems doesn’t just mean downloading more apps, but questioning every app that we’ve already downloaded on our devices today. It means taking a hard look at even the most innocuous services we might’ve tapped into over the years — even the ones that preach protection at their core — and ask if we really, really need to have it downloaded, or if it’s worth the risk that an authority on the other side is listening in.
According to Marlinspike’s post, the Signal update’s already been submitted to the app stores, and will begin rolling out, in her words, “as soon as possible.” And thank god for that — because right now, we need all the help we can get.