from The New Yorker
Walking down Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the retail strip in Venice, California, can feel like scrolling through Instagram. One afternoon this July, people sat at outdoor tables beneath drooping strings of fairy lights, sipping cocktails and spearing colorful, modestly dressed salads. The line for Salt & Straw, a venture-funded, “chef-driven” ice-cream shop, stretched up the block, and athleisure-clad twentysomethings photographed themselves eating waffle cones, fabric masks pulled down around their chins like turkey wattles. A month earlier, Abbot Kinney had become a central gathering place for protesters during the mass demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism. Moxie Marlinspike, who firmly supported the protests, noticed that many of the high-end businesses, fearing looters, had boarded up their windows, then decorated the plywood with murals and messages in support of Black Lives Matter. “It kind of reminded me of how, right after the Russian Revolution, a lot of the zeks—the sort of criminal underclass—would get full-chest tattoos of Marx and Lenin and, later, Stalin because they thought the Bolsheviks would be less likely to kill them,” he joked, as we wandered along the Venice Beach boardwalk.
Marlinspike is the C.E.O. of Signal, the end-to-end encrypted messaging service, which he launched in 2014; he is also a cryptographer, a hacker, a shipwright, and a licensed mariner. Tall and sinewy, with the build of a natural athlete who abstains from team sports, he was wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt, black Teva sandals, a denim jacket, and a white N95 mask. He has blond dreadlocks, which he had tucked under a blue cap. An avid surfer, he had been living in the neighborhood with friends for about two years, but, aside from the ocean, it held little appeal for him. “Living in Venice is like living at the end of the world, the end of history,” he told me, dryly. “All the decisions have been made. This is the world we get.”
Signal’s growth has corresponded to periods in which decisions are questioned or undone—to moments of social and political upheaval. With end-to-end encryption, the content of every communication—a text message, a video chat, a voice call, an emoji reaction—is intelligible only to the sender and the recipient. If an exchange is intercepted, by a hacker or a government agency, the interloper sees a nonsensical snarl of letters and numbers. Signal does not share growth metrics, but in late 2016 Marlinspike told the Times that the number of daily Signal downloads had grown by four hundred per cent since the election of Donald Trump. This summer in the U.S., the service was flooded with an estimated several million new users. In early July, after China imposed a sweeping national-security law, Signal was briefly the most downloaded app in Hong Kong. The Electronic Frontier Foundation includes Signal in its “Surveillance Self-Defense” guide; Edward Snowden, a friend of Marlinspike, has endorsed it for years.
All this has given Signal a halo of subversion, but Marlinspike believes that encrypted-communication tools are necessary not just in times of political tumult. Most people who use social networks and chat services, he argues, assume that their digital communications are private; they want to share their thoughts and photographs with their friends—not with Facebook and Google, not with advertisers, and certainly not on the dark Web. “In a sense, I feel like Signal is just trying to bring normality to the Internet,” he said as we sat on a patch of grass near the beach. “A lot of what we’re trying to do is just square the actual technology with people’s intent.” He plucked two small feathers out of the grass, rolled them between his fingers, and planted them upright in the dirt.