Moxie Marlinspike, the ‘hacker’ who challenges WhatsApp
According to the founding myth of Silicon Valley, success stories begin in a garage. The one about Moxie Marlinspike begins on a boat, in the middle of a storm. It was March 2012, it was near dusk in San Francisco when he decided to go sailing. It was a bad idea. As soon as it reached the open sea, a gust of wind hit the boat, knocking it away from the shore and rocking it until it capsized. Marlinspike fell into a rough and increasingly black sea. “I had heard stories about people drowning in the bay,” he would later tell. “I had always wondered how it ended in that situation.” The water was no more than 10 degrees and Marlinspike’s view was beginning to blur. A boat saw it. It not only saved his life, it also changed it.
“There is a tension between how the world works and the feelings that a near death experience generates,” he acknowledged in an interview in the magazine. The New Yorker in October. That tension ended up exploding less than a year after the incident. Marlinspike resigned as Twitter’s head of product security, giving up close to a million dollars in stock, created a nonprofit organization, Open Whisper Systems, and took up the open source encryption projects he abandoned when entering Twitter. They were the first steps to create Signal, the end-to-end encrypted messaging service, which was launched in 2014.
Moxie Marlinspike is the CEO of Signal. He is also an anarchist, hacker, carpenter, hitchhiker and (not very good) skipper of boats. It does not fit the profile of Silicon Valley and it shows with the naked eye. He is tall and lanky. A few dreadlocks hang from his shaggy mane, heavy as ship’s lines. As cryptic as you would expect from a cryptographer, his biography can be traced only by approximation. He was born somewhere in Georgia (USA) and is in his thirties. Moxie is a nickname. Few know his real name.
To understand it, one has to analyze his career. “Tyler Durden was wrong, your work defines you,” he proclaims on his blog regarding one of the maxims of the anti-establishment protagonist of Fight club. “The context of your life defines how you think and a job tends to dominate that context. Your work will change you ”. Signal has changed to Marlinspike, but its intention is that it ends up changing the world. He started working on encryption at the height of the Arab Spring. He wanted to create a messaging system that could not be intervened by the authorities. Since its inception, the app has been linked to protest movements, from the Black Lives Matter to the Hong Kong demonstrations.
Perhaps the most symbolic of Signal users is Edward Snowden, the former analyst for the US National Security Agency. He met Marlinspike in 2015 in Moscow. Snowden described him as “phenomenally interesting”, “tremendously funny” and a “wild, almost literary figure.” He responded by saying that the important thing is that users trust his software, not on him.
Signal is end-to-end encrypted. When you send a message, it enters a tunnel and its content can only be seen when it leaves the other end. If someone tried to peek through a crack, they would see a bunch of nonsensical digits. This type of protocol existed before Signal, but the user had to cut and paste a bunch of code before sending each message. It was not very practical. “Signal showed that this is possible in an elegant and efficient way,” explains Carmela Troncoso, a privacy specialist at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne. Signal, in the eyes of the user, looks like WhatsApp and that is one of its great achievements. The biggest has been that WhatsApp wants to look like him. Between 2014 and 2016, Marlinspike worked on the implementation of its protocol on WhatsApp, Facebook and Google. Millions of users today use its encryption system.
This does not mean that all these companies have the same respect for user privacy. “All messages on WhatsApp are encrypted, but Facebook can, voluntarily or at the request of a government, turn it off for certain users or certain areas. And we cannot know when it does, ”explains Jan Penfrat, political advisor to the activists network. online European Digital Rights. Signal, on the other hand, is a non-profit organization that is funded by donations. “Their mission is to make encryption ubiquitous, not commercially successful,” Marlinspike often says. The mission, for now, is going from strength to strength and with no storms in sight.
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