Encrypted communications app Signal is seeking to combine messaging and digital payments for users, following similar initiatives from Facebook and Telegram.
According to Wired magazine, Signal is introducing support for a new cryptocurrency called MobileCoin in a bid to keep up with the features offered by its more mainstream rivals.
Signal recently passed 100 million global installations of its app, which is still less popular than Telegram (which has around 500 million global users) and WhatsApp (with more than 2 billion users).
On January 7, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted ‘use Signal’ to his 50m-plus Twitter followers.
According to academic Lana Swartz, social media firms’ move into money is motivated by the increasing convergence of messaging and payments.
“Money is becoming entailed in the Silicon Valley social media tech industry. Suddenly, the infrastructure rails are changing. They are moving from banks to companies like Facebook and Google,” she told New Money Review last year.
In an interview with Wired, Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike said the app’s new payments function would extend its privacy protections to money transfers.
“There’s a palpable difference in the feeling of what it’s like to communicate over Signal, knowing you’re not being watched or listened to, versus other communication platforms,” Marlinspike told Wired.
“I would like to get to a world where not only can you feel that when you talk to your therapist over Signal, but also when you pay your therapist for the session over Signal.”
However, Signal’s move into money will be fraught with regulatory risk.
Facebook’s attempts to launch its own money called Libra (later renamed Diem) have so far been stalled by global financial regulators.
Facebook has since focused on integrating payments into WhatsApp by linking users’ bank accounts to the messaging app.
In 2018, Telegram launched an initial coin offering (ICO) to help fund a network of payment tokens called ‘Grams’, but later abandoned the idea after being accused by US regulators of having breached securities law. Telegram was then forced to offer a partial refund to investors.
Signal will initially trial payments using MobileCoin in the UK only. UK-based users will be able to access a new payments feature in the app. To use MobileCoin, they will need to buy the cryptocurrency on the FTX exchange and link it to a MobileCoin wallet on their phones.
According to the MobileCoin white paper, published in 2017, there is a fixed supply of 250m coins, called ‘MOB’. During a pre-sale conducted at the time, the project sold 35.7m coins to private investors for $0.80 per coin, raising $30m.
In April 2018, MobileCoin raised $30m more in financing from Binance Labs, the blockchain incubator of cryptocurrency exchange Binance, while in March 2021 the project added $11.35m in funding from venture capitalists Future Ventures and General Catalyst.
The MOB coin was listed on FTX on December 7 2020 and in the last two weeks has seen substantial appreciation, with the price of a single MOB coin rising from $6.2 on March 26 to $61.9 on April 6, the day Signal announced its new payments venture.
While this apparently insider-driven run-up may symbolise the latest bull market in tokens, some security experts are sceptical about the idea of combining messaging and cryptocurrency.
“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,” Bruce Schneier, a public-interest technologist and a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said on his blog yesterday.
“I see no good reason to do this,” Schneier went on.
“Secure communications and secure transactions can be separate apps, even separate apps from the same organisation. End-to-end encryption is already at risk. Signal is the best app we have out there. Combining it with a cryptocurrency means that the whole system dies if any part dies.”
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