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Signal Tests Username Feature in Pre-Beta, Paving the Way for Enhanced Privacy

Signal is venturing into new territory with the public testing of a feature that allows users to add usernames to their accounts. This move is a notable departure from the platform's traditional reliance on phone numbers for user identification. Jim O'Leary, Signal's VP of Engineering, announced the "pre-beta" test on the Signal forums, cautioning users about potential rough edges in the form of crashes and broken push notifications. The official release of this feature is scheduled for early 2024, as confirmed by Signal President Meredith Whittaker.

The introduction of usernames is a significant development for Signal, a messaging service renowned for its emphasis on privacy and security. While users will still associate their accounts with a mobile number during setup, the username feature allows them to connect and communicate without divulging their phone numbers, a sensitive piece of personally identifiable information.

A screenshot shared on X reveals that Signal users can share their usernames through a unique QR code or link. Once set up, users can designate their username as the primary contact method on Signal and have the option to prevent their phone number from being shared through their profile.

Signal has been working on the username feature for an extended period, with traces of it appearing as early as 2019, according to the service's wiki. Meredith Whittaker has also been transparent about Signal's intentions regarding this feature. Interestingly, rival WhatsApp, owned by Meta, is reportedly exploring a similar feature, although Meta is generally less forthcoming about its development plans.

While the username feature brings privacy benefits, it also introduces potential challenges, such as the risk of user impersonation. This concern was noted when Signal first announced its plans for the feature in 2021.

Users interested in testing the pre-beta feature can do so across Android, Desktop, and iOS platforms. However, O'Leary's post emphasizes that this is test software, and its installation and use may vary in ease across platforms. Additionally, users can only communicate with others running the same pre-release software, highlighting that this testing phase is primarily designed for experimentation rather than everyday communication.


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