Signal has positioned itself as one of, if not the best mainstream messaging service when it comes to preserving its users’ privacy. Everything, including metadata, is end-to-end encrypted using the quantum resistant Signal protocol. They have group video call support, text formatting, message editing and scheduling, disappearing messages, the controversial stories, and more. It’s all great until we bring up phone numbers. I think the phone number requirement has been one the most contested aspects of the messaging service so far. In order to connect with anyone on the platform you have to share phone numbers and that doesn’t sit well with privacy-sensitive folks. Exchanging phone numbers isn’t that big of a deal when we talk about family and close friends, but when it’s time to link up with a client, business partner, or just an acquaintance from the internet, people tend to be reluctant in handing out their phone numbers, and rightfully so. Now all of this has changed!

Usernames and Phone Number Privacy

Signal finally launched usernames this week. This feature has been in the works for so long, I bet most people have already given up on it. So much so that an inside joke was born out of it; it’s called “Real Soon Now”. I believe this started about 2 years ago when the former CEO Moxie had publicly posted those words in response to a tweet asking about the launch date for usernames. You know, those “usernames when” type of tweets. Anyway, now that the feature is out, let’s take a look at what the hype is all about and see how people have reacted to the news so far.

What Signal calls a username is a nickname at least 3 characters long and a number discriminator of at least 2 digits, joined with a period (e.g.: bob.17). The username is attached to a Signal account and is meant to replace the phone number for contact discovery. In other words, with this feature you’ll no longer have to disclose your phone number in order to start conversations with others on Signal. Alongside usernames, Signal also launched what they call Phone Number Privacy (PNP) which basically allows you to hide your phone number from everyone on Signal, including people you’re already talking to (your so called “Signal connections”). Furthermore, PNP allows you to prevent your account from being discoverable by your phone number. This addresses a lot of concerns around anyone being able to probe Signal servers and discover whether a particular phone number is registered.

This is great! We now have a way to send someone a short chain of characters, a link, or a QR code, to start a chat on Signal without ever revealing our phone number. But there’s something slightly different about Signal’s implementation of usernames that hasn’t caught on (not yet at least) despite their detailed explanation.

The Land Grab

Unlike other popular messaging and social media services, Signal manages usernames quite differently. In fact, I think they should’ve used another name for it altogether. Here’s why. While a username in the social media world refers to a handle that represents the account, and acts as its sole identifier in every aspect of its interaction with the service, a username in Signal is merely a reference point to establish first contact. In other words, as soon as you start a conversation with someone who you found through their username, and they accept it, their username becomes entirely irrelevant. All you see is their profile name, photo, bio, etc., the same way you did before the username launch. In addition, usernames can be, and are actually designed to be, readily changeable, if not ephemeral1. The intent is to give a means of discovery other than, in fact in lieu of, the traditional phone number, and that’s it. Now the intent is one thing, but what actually happens is a whole other story.

As soon as the Signal usernames launch hit the news, the land grad begun. Everything we just said about throwaway usernames, only needed for the initial link and all? Take that and throw it out the window. It seems like very few people actually got it, or cared. For the vast majority, a username is a username is a username. It’s my handle, my identity, my persona. And I need to pick one that makes sense for me and hold on to it, come hell or high water. People started jumping into the beta channel just to snag their “ideal” username. I’ve seen some even sacrificing their entire chat history on the desktop client just to be able to set a username using the beta client. It’s almost humorous, and admittedly quite entertaining to watch all of this unfold. I don’t mean to hate on people rushing to get their hands on a Signal username, like a crowd plowing through a Walmart glass door to swoop a juicy Black Friday deal. I’m one of them! I’ve been following the development of this feature for years, and I know most of the technical details and intricacies. So I’m well aware of the intended use of usernames in Signal. Yet, I still fell for the FOMO.

Wrap Up

We’ve briefly touched on Signal’s new Usernames and Phone Number Privacy features. We saw how despite Signal’s extensive explanation of the intention behind usernames, people, including myself, couldn’t help but let their emotions take over and scramble to score a “nice” username. Now, I’d love to hear from you. Are you among the I-want-a-shiny-username crew? Or you’re part of the one-username-per-invite gang? Feel free to respond on Mastodon. See you there!

  1. There is actually no set expiry date on usernames. It’s just that you can have a brand new one every month, or every day, if you so desire. ↩︎