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End-to-end encrypted messaging app, Signal, is getting closer to launching a much anticipated feature that will allow users to share only a username in order to connect with other users, rather than having to reveal the phone number linked to their account, as is the case now.

Other secure messaging platforms, such as Telegram and Wire, have had the feature for years (literally almost a decade in Telegram’s case!). But despite its gold standard reputation for strong security, Signal has taken its time on adding the privacy-conscious ability to connect via a username and not have to reveal your phone number.

It has been working internally on adding the feature for a while. But, per a message on the Signal Community blog, it looks to be entering the final stretch before a public launch as it’s now inviting users to test the feature in a Staging environment (which requires installing a separate test app).

“After rounds of internal testing, we have hit the point where we think the community that powers these forums can help us test even further before public launch,” it writes. “Once you’re registered and running the [Staging] app, please navigate into Settings / Profile and Settings / Privacy / Phone Number to explore the new functionality available in these builds. Please test creating usernames, sharing username links, modifying the sharing settings for your phone number, and inviting people to groups by username and by phone number alike.”

At an event in Bangalore, India, last month, Signal president Meredith Whittaker also said the username feature “should launch in early 2024“.

Signal is asking test guinea pigs that download its Staging app to report crashes and share debug logs as it works on shipping usernames.

“These early builds are designed to proactively crash if it appears that anything has gone wrong under the hood, since we’re changing the fundamental way that accounts are identified in the Signal ecosystem,” it writes on its community forum. “We know that there are some rough edges in the UX at the moment, as you might expect with pre-beta software, so you’re welcome to note issues you find in the UX, but we may already be aware of many of them.”

It adds that it’s expecting to update the builds daily vs the usual weekly cadence for its public betas.

There’s lots of reasons why someone using a messaging app might want to chat with another user digitally without handing over their phone number. Maybe it’s a person they just met and are still sounding out to decide whether they’re trustworthy. Or they might want to open up a professional communications line with a contact but not want to hand over their personal data as well.

Phone numbers not only link directly to the device in your pocket, they are often linked to other accounts so can be of interest to hackers and identity thieves. Sharing fewer pieces of personal data is good security practice, as well as being better for privacy.

“Usernames will make it possible to communicate with anyone on Signal without sharing your phone number. So that will provide a level of privacy on the device — which will be really important,” affirmed Whittaker last month.

She added that the feature has taken a while to add because “it’s actually a major architectural overhaul”.

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