Signalbots: Secrets Distribution and Social Graph Protection for Activists

Signal is currently one of the most useful and widely-adopted tools that we have for secure communication amongst activists, journalists, and human rights defenders. The New York Times recently reported that in the first week of June 2020, on the onset of protests and marches that swept through the United States and several other cities worldwide, Signal had 183,000 new downloads. With the rare combination of both a hardened, widely lauded security model and a user base of millions, the Signal platform has the potential of being leveraged for a variety of different functions, with the end goal of providing additional tools for vulnerable people without requiring them to install another app.

To that end, the Open Technology Fund (OTF), an organization that incubates privacy and security tools (and even in the early days, Signal itself) supported the creation of Ionosphere, a toolkit for building chatbots and other tools on top of the Signal network using straightforward JavaScript libraries with example code and clearly defined APIs.

In this session, Josh King, developer of Ionosphere, will demonstrate how these tools have been used to create chatbots for protecting activists' social graphs, providing IRC-like services to Signal groups, and more. Sarah Aoun, chief technologist at OTF, will discuss how OTF is using Ionosphere to extend services and tools to activists, human rights defenders, and journalists around the world. One example of it is through the creation of a Signal VPN bot, used to distribute VPN access and other resources to people in environments with restricted Internet freedom. Participants will come away with an understanding of the tools that exist for utilizing Signal in novel ways, how to think through the threat model and risk assessment for targeted groups, and how those tools can be expanded upon and applied to their own communities.