Did Signal shoot itself in the foot?

This Tuesday, Signal, the encrypted messaging app, announced the start of a beta test for a pretty simple feature — users in the UK can now send and receive payments in MOB, an altcoin cryptocurrency. But, in a “how it started, how it’s going” twist, the masses have turned against them, calling this the start of a downfall and a blow to the service’s integrity. Today, I’ll explain what exactly prompted such strong reactions and whether or not they’re really warranted.

What is MOB?

MOB is MobileCoin, an open-source cryptocurrency that was unveiled way back in 2017, created by Joshua Goldbard. What made it notable for the crypto world and everyone beyond was the involvement of Moxie Marlinspike, the man behind Open Whisper Systems and, consequently, Signal. Marlinspike, a professional cryptographer, lent his expertise to the MobileCoin Foundation and has been working on the coin pretty much since its inception. Wired did a piece on it, citing Moxie’s reasons for the new venture: “The innovations I want to see are ones that make cryptocurrency deployable in normal environments, without sacrificing the properties that distinguish cryptocurrency from existing payment mechanisms.” What this amounts to is a desire to make crypto quick, easy to use and available to everybody who wants a piece.

The coin launched officially in December 2020 and, despite its relative infancy, gained just over $11 million in venture funding in March 2021. Up until now it didn’t really get much buzz outside of crypto enthusiast circles, a turn that goes against MOB’s stated ideology. However, with the rollout of MOB payments to Signal’s user base, things could change.

Criticism: Who and Why?

The partnership with MOB attracted immediate backlash, both from regular users and experts. The two prominent names that spoke out include Matt Green, a cryptographer, and Bruce Schneier, one of the most acclaimed technologists in the field of security. Green stated:

“I’m terrified for Signal. Signal as an encrypted messaging product is really valuable. Speaking solely as a person who is really into encrypted messaging, it terrifies me that they’re going to take this really clean story of an encrypted messenger and mix it up with the nightmare of laws and regulations and vulnerability that is cryptocurrency.”

Meanwhile, Schneier had a similar but broader complaint:

“I think this is an incredibly bad idea. It’s not just the bloating of what was a clean secure communications app. It’s not just that blockchain is just plain stupid. It’s not even that Signal is choosing to tie itself to a specific blockchain currency. It’s that adding a cryptocurrency to an end-to-end encrypted app muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI.”

Is It Valid?

The common threads in both the public and expert criticisms are: worrying that this will attract unwanted attention; considering it bloating in an otherwise pretty slim app; disapproving of ties to MOB for a variety of reasons.

For the first complaint, you don’t have to look too far back to get why people are worried. When Telegram’s seemingly successful coin offering got halted by the SEC, alarm bells sounded in many entrepreneur’s heads. So seeing Telegram’s direct competitor meddle in cryptocurrency is surely causing some deja vu in users, even if Signal’s situation is much simpler to navigate, if only because it’s not the one issuing coins. It’s hard to accurately judge whether or not this move will bring Signal the attention of the big agencies but it’s almost certainly going to spur a new wave of fear mongering in the media, as cryptocurrency is often painted as a tool for criminals.

The second is multi-faceted as some people just consider the MOB payments to be bloating while others point out that the development of this feature is seemingly the cause of a yearlong delay in server code updates on Github, as Signal tried to keep the feature under wraps. Moreover, users on Signal’s subreddit are accusing the company of prioritizing this feature over others that have been requested for quite some time. However, it is, again, impossible to know that this is truly the cause of the stalled development on these long-awaited features. Signal is not a one-man operation and the likelihood of these things being worked on concurrently outweighs the idea that the company dropped everything to do this one thing.

The third complaint is the most nuanced. As Moxie worked on MOB, people are accusing him of supporting a project that he has a stake in and wondering why this was the coin of choice, instead of the more widely known Monero and Bitcoin. While it’s not possible to rule out some ulterior motive from Marlinspike, the criticism does ring too heavy as it mostly hinges on people not being familiar with MOB, a currency that’s only a few months old at this point, and expecting Marlinspike, a man that they’ve trusted for years now, to suddenly turn into a cackling money-grabbing villain. Even if you assume Moxie is still true to his privacy principles but did jump at a chance for a cash grab, there’s one other point that disrupts this complaint. Buried in the blog announcement is this line: “The first payments protocol we’ve added support for is a privacy focused payments network called MobileCoin.” It clearly implies that MOB is just the first of many payment options to come in the future. That doesn’t completely remove concerns about MOB but it does mean people won’t be forced into using it on an exclusive basis, eventually.

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