EAs should use Signal instead of Facebook Messenger

post by Peter S. Park · 2022-07-21T00:38:44.224Z · EA · GW · 38 comments

Edit: From the net upvotes my post has (22) and the net upvotes that the top  disagreeing comment (29) has, I estimate about 51/(51+29)=64% to be on board with a movement-wide transition to Signal. Still, I have to admit, I underestimated the level of opposition to this proposal.

There are benefits to all EAs being on the same messaging app, so it's good to do an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis before any equilibrium shift.

I think the pros of Signal are

  1. Privacy/security against data breaches, which threaten reputational harm to the EA movement.
  2. You can add 1000 people per groupchat (Facebook Messenger can only add 150 people).
  3. Minor reason: The profits fueling Facebook AI's capabilities research could be reduced if many users of their core services leave. But it is unlikely that the EA community will be the tipping point of this trend.

and the pros of Facebook Messenger are

  1. You can search for the name of a person to add to a groupchat.
  2. Your message history is on Facebook's server, and thus can be easily accessed across devices.
  3. Minor reason: Facebook Messenger Rooms allow up to 50 people in a call (Signal allows only eight). But other video chat apps, ideally with high-privacy, can be used instead.

Expanding a point in my post: For the Signal equiilbrium shift to be effective, it is not enough to use Signal oneself. One should also take proactive actions to ensure that the EA community as a whole uses Signal for internal messages. For example, one could 

  1. proactively make Signal groupchats for their EA circles/social events,
  2. suggest switching to Signal when another EA proposes a Facebook-Messenger groupchat, and
  3. create Signal groupchats for the subsets of privacy-prioritizing EAs, even in EA circles that have traditionally used Facebook Messenger.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

Acknowledgements: I am extremely grateful to Michael Einhorn for this idea, and to Samuel Chen, Stephen Fowler, and Luise Wöhlke for their feedback on this post.

tl;dr. Facebook Messenger is dangerously insecure. It only takes one data breach of one insufficiently careful EA to harm the movement. Thus, all EAs should use Signal instead of Facebook Messenger for their internal messages.

The Post: In my experience, groupchats among effective altruists usually happen on either Slack (for work-related settings) or Facebook Messenger (for social settings in general). I've heard that the EA communities of Germany and the U.K. also use Signal, which I propose is a more impactful choice.

As a rule of thumb, all Facebook Messenger conversations between effective altruists should be moved to Signal.

How it works: "Signal is designed to never collect or store any sensitive information. Signal messages and calls cannot be accessed by us or other third parties because they are always end-to-end encrypted, private, and secure." (quoted from their website)

By default, Facebook Messenger is not end-to-end encrypted. Messages sent on the default version of Messenger are stored on Facebook's servers, which can be accessed by Facebook, law enforcement, and hackers. And Facebook has confirmed that it spies on Messenger conversations.

There is a (highly unknown) encrypted version of Facebook Messenger called Secret Conversations. There is also WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned message app which claims to have end-to-end encryption. However, even messages on WhatsApp can be accessed by Facebook and by law enforcement. This is compelling evidence that Facebook cannot be trusted with our messages.

Moreover, using any of these Facebook-owned message apps implicitly endorses, and potentially results in training data for, Facebook's current trajectory. This is a trajectory that can plausibly result in a castastrophe (even human extinction) due to an unaligned artificial intelligence developed by Facebook AI in the future

In contrast, Signal is a nonprofit whose mission is to provide open-source privacy technology to the public. We know that Signal does not store any data beyond a name and phone number (optional), the time of account creation, and the last log-in time. This has been verified by legally binding subpoenas.

Question: "What if I have nothing to hide?" This belief would most likely be overconfident. If effective altruists' messages are hacked, taken out of context, and publicly revealed, it could substantially and even permanently harm the movement. Consider the example of John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Many of his emails, including those that made Clinton and her campaign look bad, were obtained by hackers in a data breach and published in Wikileaks. This event is likely to have at least partially contributed to Clinton's loss to Donald Trump

Question: "What if I'm very careful about what I say on Facebook Messenger?" Even if you are very careful, other effective altruists may not be. It only takes one data breach of one insufficiently careful EA to harm the movement. So, effective altruists who perpetuate our community's use of Facebook Messenger are forcing a painful choice between risking reputational harms (e.g., from a data breach) and sacrificing epistemics (e.g., if the whole EA community walks on eggshells in order to not look bad in the event of a data breach). We can avoid this painful choice by agreeing as a community to use Signal.

Question: "Isn't Facebook's event function very useful to make EA events known to the public?" I completely agree, and think it may often be a worthwhile tradeoff to use Facebook's event function for EA outreach (especially towards the comparatively older people, those outside of Generation Z), even if this would yield a marginal amount of training data for Facebook. But we should avoid using Facebook when we don't absolutely have to. This means we should use Signal for all internal messages between effective altruists.

Importantly, switching to Signal has no comparable costs. The only cost I can think of is that the UX (User Experience) might be slightly better for Facebook Messenger than Signal. Even this is subjective. Some would prefer Signal's UX: for example, the ability to easily and safely access all effective altruists in a groupchat and their phone numbers after being added to it. (Note that this only applies to people who prefer to share their phone numbers. People who don't want to tie their phone number to their Signal accounts have many ways to avoid doing so.)

One ostensible advantage of Facebook Messenger is that connecting with EA acquaintances is (in some situations) marginally easier, because you can search for their names. But this effect is truly marginal; we are talking about a difference of at most several seconds per connection. And if these several seconds per connection are invested in adding yourself to an EA groupchat, Signal guarantees that you have an easy and safe access to all effective altruists in the groupchat and their phone numbers.  This would aid the EA community's social connectivity in the long run, making even the UX a point in favor of Signal.

To quickly add someone to a Signal groupchat, all you have to do is create an invite link and send it. This method, and the alternative method of using a QR code, are detailed here.

Is a community-wide transition feasible? In the past three days, we have achieved an almost-perfect success rate for persuading effective altruists to transition from Facebook Messenger to Signal. At our EA house/coworking space in Berkeley (informally named Prospective), we have successfully transitioned from our previous groupchat in Facebook Messenger to a new groupchat in Signal, with over 90% supporting the change. In fact, I frequently heard comments like, "I didn't use Facebook Messenger until I came to Berkeley to work on EA stuff, so I was forced to download it."

It is, of course, a nontrivial problem to change the entire EA community's equilibrium away from Facebook Messenger and towards Signal. Even though Signal constitutes a better long-term equilibrium for our community, there is already a critical mass of effective altruists who use Facebook Messenger for messaging other effective altruists.

To effectively undo this network effect and reestablish it around Signal:

  1. We should explicitly encourage every fellow effective altruist we meet (at university groups, conferences, and social events) to, as a matter of principle, use Signal rather than Facebook Messenger.
  2. We should crowdsource a shared document (here) detailing how to transition to and optimally use Signal. Please let me know if you would like to collaborate on this!


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Habryka · 2022-07-21T05:10:37.813Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Signal doesn't have Message history shared across devices, which is basically a defeater for me to use it. I switch between devices a lot, and I've lost a good amount of important correspondence historically on signal. I expect it would cost me a decent amount of productivity if people defaulted to Signal, and the very small marginal gain of security doesn't seem worth it.

Replies from: Peter S. Park
comment by Peter S. Park · 2022-07-21T07:42:10.395Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My understanding is that after one links their multiple desktop devices to their main mobile-phone account (via this method), all Signal messages to their main account from that point on get sent to the linked desktop devices as well. This means the following seems true:

Suppose an EA believes that most other EAs will eventually switch to Signal for all internal messages (which I think is likely due to its substantial privacy benefits). 

Then, this EA would maximize the proportion of their messages stored in their devices' Signal apps by switching to Signal sooner rather than later, and linking all their desktop devices sooner rather than later.

In other words, it is plausible that the EAs who switch to Signal as early as possible (and link all their desktop devices as early as possible) will comparatively benefit, at least when it comes to the proportion of message history stored in their devices' Signal apps. In contrast, EAs who do so later would miss out on this benefit. 

Consequently, as someone who predicts that most EAs should and will eventually switch to Signal, my enthusiastic suggestion is that EAs should make a Signal account and link all their desktop devices to it today!

Replies from: Habryka
comment by Habryka · 2022-07-21T19:50:29.275Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I currently think there is no way (or at least no easy way) to transfer message history to a new laptop. So at some point, I will have lost all message history.

Replies from: Peter S. Park
comment by Peter S. Park · 2022-07-23T22:20:18.746Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks so much, Habryka, for this really important point! I really appreciate it.

How to move message history between devices?

For moving message history from your primary (mobile) device to your new primary device: https://support.signal.org/hc/en-us/articles/360007059752-Backup-and-Restore-Messages

For moving message history from desktop to desktop, there is no official way yet endorsed by Signal developers. But there are unofficial ways (that I have yet to test myself, and would be great to test! Please let us know if you tried this method either successfully or unsuccessfully.)

Moving chat history from Windows to Windows: https://www.reddit.com/r/signal/comments/s93756/is_there_way_i_can_move_over_my_chat_history_from/htllhog/?context=8&depth=9

Moving chat history from Mac to Mac: https://www.reddit.com/r/signal/comments/lbnzg7/comment/hifd8tj/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

Again, I have not tried these methods. It would be great if someone has tried them and shared the result with the rest of the EA community!

Replies from: Habryka
comment by Habryka · 2022-07-23T22:32:17.419Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What I need is a way to transfer message history from mobile to desktop, which I haven't found any instructions for (the most usual way for me to lose access to my desktop message history is for my laptop to break, so transferring between different devices isn't super helpful).

Replies from: Peter S. Park
comment by Peter S. Park · 2022-07-23T22:40:57.581Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm looking into (informal) ways to transfer message history from mobile to desktop, and will get back to you. (It would be great to have a Signal expert/enthusiast on board for these kinds of questions!)

The solution that I'm pretty convinced would work is to periodically backup the desktop Signal files on a secure cloud storage. But again, I haven't tried this.

Replies from: hibukki
comment by Yonatan Cale (hibukki) · 2022-07-23T23:07:43.931Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

@Habryka, if this were solved, would you change your mind?

Replies from: Habryka
comment by Habryka · 2022-07-24T22:26:25.279Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If it's easy and doable in less 5 minutes without risking your message history somehow, that would address a major problem for me. I do also think the absence of this feature indicates to me that Signal just doesn't really care about the user experience of people in my reference class, so I expect to find many similar problems, which makes me very hesitant to switch over, while obvious things like this haven't been addressed (it seems kind of obvious to me that message history should just be able to be automatically synced across all devices, and this should totally be cryptographically possible).

comment by Austin (akrolsmir) · 2022-07-21T08:42:47.242Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hrm, I strongly disagree with this post.

  • I don't see that security/privacy is especially important as a feature of a messaging system, when compared to something like "easy to use" or "my friends are already on it"
  • Basically all sensitive/important EA communication already happens over Slack or Gmail. This means that the consideration for the switching isn't especially relevant to "EA", vs just regular consumers.
  • This post reads as fairly alarmist against FB messenger, but doesn't do a good job explaining or quantifying what the harms of a possible security breach are, nor how likely such a breach might be
  • I don't think EA want to be spending weirdness points convincing people to use a less-good system - switching costs are quite high!

Fwiw, I do agree that choosing good software is quite important - for example, I think EA orgs are way overindexed on Google Docs, and a switch to Notion would make any one org something like 10% more productive within 3 months.

Replies from: Konstantin Pilz, Guy Raveh
comment by Konstantin (Konstantin Pilz) · 2022-07-21T10:31:50.972Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you seriously think switching to Notion would improve the productivity of some orgs by 10% you should write this up as fast as possible and convince them to do so!

Replies from: akrolsmir
comment by Austin (akrolsmir) · 2022-07-21T23:05:42.974Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Half-baked draft that has been sitting around for a while: https://blog.austn.io/posts/why-you-should-switch-from-google-docs-to-notion

I would spend more time on this cause if I felt that EA orgs actually would listen to me on this point. And I actually do pitch this quite often to when I talk to leaders at EA orgs, haha.

comment by Guy Raveh · 2022-07-21T10:05:21.852Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think EA orgs are way overindexed on Google Docs, and a switch to Notion would make any one org something like 10% more productive within 3 months.

Can you reasonably expect it to be maintained far enough into the future the same way you expect that from Google docs?

Replies from: akrolsmir
comment by Austin (akrolsmir) · 2022-07-21T23:04:22.734Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, Notion has been around for 6 years and has raised hundreds of millions in funding: https://www.crunchbase.com/organization/notion-so

comment by RobertM (T3t) · 2022-07-21T01:13:36.856Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Importantly, switching to Signal has no comparable costs. The only cost I can think of is that the UX (User Experience) might be slightly better for Facebook Messenger than Signal.


Have you conducted a user survey to this effect?  I personally find Signal's UX to be substantially worse than Messenger's (for the relevant use-cases), and strongly expect that most people who've used both would have similar feelings.


I also think this significantly overstates the potential risk reduction, since incautious users are those that are least likely to switch to Signal, so the gains are mostly limited to users who are already more careful by nature.

Replies from: Ben Pace
comment by Ben Pace · 2022-07-21T01:31:59.041Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Nah, I am regularly wildly un-careful in my speech, so moving to Signal is a major benefit precisely for me.

Agree on UI though, the first time ppl text me I don't know who they are, and no photos for most of my contacts.

comment by Alex_Altair · 2022-07-22T00:28:29.398Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I use Signal with anyone else who's willing, and I support advocating switching from Messenger to Signal, but I think this post is pretty poorly written.

The first thing is that the tone is far too normative. You are telling the reader what to do, and you are telling them that you are right about it being better. This is unpleasant to read and is a poor way to convince people to do something.

I don't think you made an honest attempt to check for reasons why people prefer Messenger. I have many friends who used Signal with me over several months, but eventually went back to using Messenger. There are reasons why they did this.

I also find a bunch of your arguments unconvincing. For example;

But this effect is truly marginal; we are talking about a difference of at most several seconds per connection

This is something that feels like it would be true, but if you have studied user acquisition or consumer behavior or whatever, then you start to see how the tiniest and most trivial feeling step can hugely reduce how many people actually sign up. It's not about how long it nominally takes. It's about how many people will actually bother or decide to. Everyone is already on facebook, and therefore they're already on Messenger, and you also already know it's them.

In my own experience, the problem pointed out by Habryka is the biggest one. Even if there is some way to get message history to transfer, it is a lot of effort to figure out what that method is and then do it.

comment by Sam Yoon · 2022-07-21T01:14:53.525Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Would be an interesting microcosmic observation around how easy it is to convince a large group of people to change behaviour to something that's better despite 'status quo' bias.  Which is of course something that we are trying to do in other more 'macro' scenarios e.g., diet, emissions etc.

comment by Luise · 2022-07-21T00:51:43.320Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If effective altruists' messages are hacked, taken out of context, and publicly revealed, it could substantially and even permanently harm the movement. Consider the example of John Podesta, chair of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Many of his emails, including those that made Clinton and her campaign look bad, were obtained by hackers in a data breach and published in Wikileaks.


How likely is it that someone would target the EA movement by hacking messages and taking them out of context?

Replies from: freedomandutility, Ben Pace
comment by freedomandutility · 2022-07-21T02:48:08.235Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Seems almost certain to happen if more EAs run for public office

comment by Ben Pace · 2022-07-21T00:58:58.003Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Pretty sure non-zero people have tried, my guess is the question is "how competent of an attacker and how much effort do they put into it".

comment by Ben Pace · 2022-07-21T01:02:06.402Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Happy to get behind this, I am always down to move to Signal. You can reach me there at five one oh, nine nine eight, four seven seven one (also a +1 at the front for US country code). (Please identify yourself when you text me.)

comment by Yonatan Cale (hibukki) · 2022-07-23T23:04:55.456Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[unpopular comment ahead]

The main reason people don't move to a different messaging app is that "they want to use one app" and "their friends are on it so the one app will be that".

This makes it hard for everyone.

There is a coordination problem here that is made significantly harder for everyone who cares about it due to the inconvenience of some people, which, I acknowledge exists, but multiplies in the "harm" it does when we're dealing with a problem of moving a critical mass of people.

My unfair request is not "ignore your preferences".

My unfair request is "if it's a not-too-big inconvenience and you don't actually really care and your pushback is about only using one app or something like that, do it anyway for sake of solving this coordination problem. Having this friction be reduced by 20% or whatever is a big deal".


Perhaps better explained, if you didn't already lose me and downvote my comment:

Imagine we'd all go to the same class everyday and meet up and have fun.

And the class wasn't so good. walls peeling? not such good food? I'm not sure.

And there was another class we could go to.

But if we split up into 2 groups, it's way less fun. There's value in having everyone move.

So you start convincing people.

And people say "well we're used to the first class and everyone's already going there". Also, most people didn't think about it as deeply as you did.

Imagine how badly you'd want them - if they didn't have some big reason - to just have less friction here in changing their mind.


Ok time to downvote me!

comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2022-07-21T06:47:24.122Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

One big downside of signal is that you can't just search people easily, you need to have their number. Seems like a pretty big downside. I only use signal with close friends as a result.

Replies from: Peter S. Park
comment by Peter S. Park · 2022-07-21T06:55:33.717Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

All you have to do is create an invite link and send it to the person.

You can also use a QR code.

Details can be found here!

Replies from: vaidehi_agarwalla
comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2022-07-21T07:00:17.507Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks that's useful information. It still seems like more work than I would put in for a short interaction (which as a community builder I have a lot of) and also seems inconvenient for the other person if they don't already have signal.

comment by Tyler Johnston · 2022-07-21T03:53:34.713Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Aside from the valid concerns about data security, I strongly endorse this if only because I am happier without most social media and I know a non-negligible, perhaps growing, subset of people feel similarly. 

I've disliked having to maintain a facebook account as a barrier to entry to talking to people I care about, and using a messaging app made strictly for messaging feels like a useful change.

Replies from: ag4000, therealslimkt
comment by ag4000 · 2022-07-21T18:55:52.785Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agreed, although it's possible to use Messenger with a deactivated Facebook account, which seems to solve this issue.

Replies from: Tyler Johnston, Peter S. Park
comment by Tyler Johnston · 2022-07-21T21:21:03.769Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Oh wow, this is really good to know. Thank you!

comment by Peter S. Park · 2022-07-21T20:15:48.006Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is what I do when I need to use Facebook Messenger!

comment by Karthik Tadepalli (therealslimkt) · 2022-07-21T04:42:51.089Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

That does not feel like a sufficient condition to endorse this when other more mainstream messaging apps like WhatsApp exist. The concerns about data security seem necessary to justify Signal over more popular apps.

Replies from: Tyler Johnston
comment by Tyler Johnston · 2022-07-21T14:20:32.949Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agreed — my comment is a point in favor of moving from messenger to "a messaging app made strictly for messaging." That could be Signal or Whatsapp, or something else entirely.

comment by Yonatan Cale (hibukki) · 2022-07-23T23:06:55.253Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Any opinions about https://element.io/personal?

A friend sent me it a few days ago,

Seems like a good version of Slack that takes security very seriously. Has channels, threads, emojis. Used it for 5 minutes and seemed fun

comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2022-07-21T07:00:57.818Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Meta: I'd recommend your crowd sourcing document ne a google doc for easier access.

Replies from: Chris Shaw
comment by Chris Shaw · 2022-07-21T07:22:09.542Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

meta: do we know that Google Docs are secure?

Replies from: Peter S. Park
comment by Peter S. Park · 2022-07-21T07:49:55.593Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Google Docs are not secure.

For the moment, I've used a publicly shared file on Dropbox for the Signal guide. But we are open to better ideas!

And we are also looking for a tech/Signal expert who would be better than myself at writing up and maintaining the EA community's Signal guide!

Replies from: Guy Raveh, JamesOz
comment by Guy Raveh · 2022-07-21T10:11:36.000Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Google Docs are not secure.

I read the linked article and I'm not convinced at all. I wouldn't store there something really secret/incriminating, but other than that I don't see any problem. More explicitly, no information I have ever stored anywhere seems problematic to store on Google drive.

comment by James Ozden (JamesOz) · 2022-07-21T08:03:23.967Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you want a secure alternative to Google Docs, try CryptPad. In my experience, the UX / functionality is pretty bad, but if security is your top concern, it might be worth it.

comment by Benjamin Start · 2022-07-28T05:41:07.270Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Facebook is pretty terrible I wish there was an easier way to not use it. So many people post it as a primary method of contact.