Signal updates protect those in Egypt and UAE from state censors
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All that remains of the giant protest banner created by Fouad Mokhtar, 31, is a photo on his iPhone as the sign is surrounded by thousands of demonstrators during the Egyptian revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February. Photo credit: Hannah Allam/MCT via Getty Images Israel

All that remains of the giant protest banner created by Fouad Mokhtar, 31, is a photo on his iPhone as the sign is surrounded by thousands of demonstrators during the Egyptian revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February. Photo credit: Hannah Allam/MCT via Getty Images Israel

Open Whisper Systems defies Egypt and UAE with Signal app workaround on mobile

Egypt’s rulers know all too well the power of social media and secure messaging systems. The revolution that brought people out into the streets in 2011 had a major online organizing component..

In response to this and since the 2013 coup, the Egyptian government has greatly stepped up communications monitoring, exploring contracts to monitor YouTube, WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook, Twitter and Skype while banning these or other services on security and regulatory grounds. As Wamda noted in a report on Saudi Arabia’s VoIP bans, “autonomy” through such alternative channels “does not always sit well with governments,” both in terms of security as well as telecoms who resent the intrusion into their oligopolistic markets.

Signal, a secure messaging app, is the latest service to feel the pinch. But its developers at Open Whisper Systems (OWS) are fighting back.

Mada Masr reported on Monday that users in Egypt were complaining they couldn’t receive or send messages. These access problems follow what Mada Masr describes as a coordinated campaign by Egyptian ISPs “in blocking access to several websites, disabling the HTTPS security feature, injecting pop-up advertisements into the browser interface and disseminating malware.”

In response to the blocking, they’ve built a bypass for Android users, both in Egypt and another country, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the service (and encrypted messaging in general) is under fire.

Using domain fronting, “The idea is that to block the target traffic, the censor would also have to block those entire services,” OWS team member Moxie Marlinspike wrote in a blog post: “To block Signal messages, these countries [Egypt and the UAE] would also have to block all of google.com.”

The Signal update will be made available for iOS users as well, OWS says. Later, releases for both operating systems will have even more features, “detecting censorship and applying circumvention when needed,” ideally releasing users from needing to use VPNs if they travel.

Earlier this year, The Intercept reported that because Facebook is now so heavily monitored and various pages or groups infiltrated by informants, Egyptians were turning to Signal for their secure messaging needs.

Even though just having it installed on a phone, though, is likely to get you noticed by the police.

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