Neeraj Agrawal, spokesperson for a cryptocurrency think tank, typically used the Signal encrypted messaging app to chat with privacy-conscious colleagues and peers. He was therefore surprised on Monday when the application alerted him to two new users: mom and dad.
“Signal still had a subversive luster,” said Mr. Agrawal, 32. “Now my parents are on it.”
On Telegram, another encrypted messaging app, Gavin McInnes, founder of the far-right group Proud Boys, had just announced his return. “Dude, I haven’t posted here in a while,” he wrote on Sunday. “I will post regularly.”
And on Twitter, Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur, also weighed in last week with a two-word endorsement: “Use Signal.”
Over the past week, tens of millions of people have downloaded Signal and Telegram, which makes them the two most popular apps in the world. Signal allows messages to be sent with “end-to-end encryption,” which means that no one other than the sender and recipient can read its content. Telegram offers some encrypted messaging options, but is widely popular for its group chat rooms where people can discuss a variety of topics.
Their sudden surge in popularity was spurred by a series of events last week that stoked growing anxiety over some of the big tech companies and their communications apps, like WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. Tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have deleted thousands of far-right accounts, including President Trump‘s – after the capture of the Capitol. Amazon, Apple and Google too cut support for Speaksr, a social network popular with Mr. Trump fans. In response, the Conservatives searched for new applications where they could communicate.
At the same time, privacy concerns increased on WhatsApp, which reminded users in a pop-up notification that it shares some of their data with its parent company. The notification sparked a wave of anxiety, fueled by viral channel messages falsely claiming that Facebook could read WhatsApp messages.
The result has been a massive migration which, if it lasts, could weaken the power of Facebook and other big tech companies. Telegram said on Tuesday it had added more than 25 million users in the previous three days, bringing it to over 500 million users. Signal added nearly 1.3 million users on Monday alone, after averaging just 50,000 downloads a day last year, according to estimates from Apptopia, an app data company.
“We have already had peaks in downloads,” Pavel Durov, Telegram chief executive, said in a post on the app on Tuesday. “But this time it’s different.”
Carl Woog, a spokesperson for WhatsApp, said users’ privacy settings had not changed and the rumors about the data being shared were largely unfounded.
“What doesn’t change is that private messages to friends and family, including group chats, will be protected with end-to-end encryption so we can’t see them,” he said. -he declares.
The rise of Telegram and Signal could ignite the encryption debate, which helps protect the privacy of people’s digital communications, but can cripple authorities in criminal investigations because the conversations are hidden.
Any move towards the apps by far-right groups in particular has worried US officials, some of whom are trying to follow the planning of what could turn out to be violent rallies on or before the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. next week. .
“The proliferation of crypto platforms, where law enforcement cannot even monitor rhetoric, allows groups with bad intentions to plan behind the curtain,” said Louis Grever, head of the Association of national criminal investigation agencies.
Capitol Riot Fallout
Telegram has been particularly popular with those on the far right as it mimics social media. So after Facebook and Twitter limited Mr. Trump to their services last week and other companies started withdrawing support for Parler, far-right groups on Parler and other fringe social networks posted. links to new Telegram channels and urged people to join them.
Within four hours of Talking Monday going offline, a group of Proud Boys on Telegram gained over 4,000 new subscribers.
“Don’t trust big tech,” read a post about a Proud Boys group on Speak. “We will have to find safer spaces.”
On Signal, a Florida-based militia said Monday it was holding its city-by-city small group discussions limited to a few dozen people each, according to messages seen by The New York Times. They warned not to let in anyone they did not know personally, to prevent the police from spying on their conversations.
The flow of users from Dubai-based Telegram and Silicon Valley-based Signal goes well beyond the American far right. Mr Durov said that 94% of the 25 million new Telegram users are from Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. Apptopia data showed that while the United States was the # 1 source for new Signal users, downloads of both apps have increased in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere.
Fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies have boosted the popularity of Telegram and Signal. As long as there was no significant change in the way WhatsApp handles user data, people immediately interpreted the app’s privacy notice last week to mean that it infiltrated all kinds of personal information – like personal chat logs and voice calls – and shared that data with businesses.
WhatsApp was quick to say people got it wrong and couldn’t see anything inside the encrypted conversations and calls. But it was too late.
“The whole world now seems to understand that Facebook doesn’t create apps for them, Facebook builds apps for their data,” said Moxie Marlinspike, Founder and CEO of Signal. “It took that little catalyst to push everyone past the change.”
The fervor was such that on Tuesday, Moses Tsali, a rapper from Los Angeles, released a music video for his song, “Hit me on the signal. And Mr. Musk’s endorsement of Signal last week sent publicly traded shares of Signal Advance Inc., a small medical device maker, outbreak with a market value of around $ 50 million to over $ 3 billion. (The company has no connection with the messaging app.)
Some world leaders have also urged people to join them on the apps. On Sunday, the Twitter account of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico spoke about his new group on Telegram. As of Wednesday, it numbered nearly 100,000 members.
Eli Sapir, chief executive of Apptopia, said that while people’s concerns about Facebook’s data collection are fair, WhatsApp actually uses more secure encryption than Telegram. “It’s like going from something high in sugar to corn syrup,” he said, adding that Signal was the safest of the three.
Meyi Alabi, 18, a student in Ibadan, Nigeria, said she was surprised this week when her mother invited her to join Signal. Her mother had downloaded the app at the request of a friend worried about WhatsApp.
“I was in shock because she had it before me,” she says. “We usually talk to our parents about new apps. Now, all of a sudden, we’re the ones informed.
Mr. Agrawal, the cryptocurrency worker, said his parents have long been active in several WhatsApp group chats with college friends and relatives in India. He said they told him they joined Signal to follow many of these threads moving there as some of the attendees were concerned about WhatsApp’s new policy.
He said he knew the dangers of WhatsApp politics were exaggerated, but a large part of the public does not understand how their data is handled.
“They hear these key things – data sharing, Facebook, privacy,” Mr. Agrawal said, “and that’s enough for them to say, I have to get rid of it.