Signal has a moment.
In recent days, it became the number 1 free app in the iOS App Store and Google Play Store, mainly due to three things that were completely out of control. The first was the move by both Facebook and Twitter to block President Trump from their platforms, prompting many of his supporters to look for alternatives.
Then one of these options, Parler, was removed by both Apple and Google from their respective app stores due to information linking some users of the right-wing social media app to the attack from the US Capitol Building. Parler later went completely offline when Amazon closed its AWS account.
As a result, people flocked to the encrypted messaging app, which is supported by the nonprofit Signal Foundation. On Monday alone, Signal Messenger was downloaded by more than 1.5 million users. According to Sensor Tower, which offers analysis of the mobile apps, Signal was downloaded 17.8 million times during the week of 5 January. This is quite extraordinary for an app that typically has an average of around 50,000 downloads per day.
The wave of downloads even caused problems with Signals verification system, causing delays in setting up accounts for new users.
Signal is still an underdog.
The reason why the diverse user group suddenly came down on Signal has much more to do with what happened long before last week. This is important because even though millions of people may hear about it for the first time, it does not just suddenly come out of nowhere.
Signals’ previous moment in the spotlight came during Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. At the time, it was a reflection of the app’s popularity among activists, journalists and other security users who value the fact that signal messages are never stored on the platform’s servers and can only be decrypted by the intended end user.
An overnight success, year in a row.
Signal was founded by Brian Acton, who also founded WhatsApp. After the latter was acquired by Facebook, Acton left and created the non-profit organization to develop an open source encryption protocol, which – ironically – was later adopted by WhatsApp as well.
A major difference, however, is that Signals’ privacy is good enough that when the company was required to provide information about a user of a grand jury summons, the only information available was the date the account was created and the date of the last activity. There was no information about any of the user’s messages or contacts at all.
Even if someone managed to catch an encrypted message, it would simply look like a messy mess. Only the intended receiver, with the correct security key, is able to decrypt it. Signal encrypts all calls by default. You can not turn it off, even if you wanted to.
It is different from another app that has had a good week. Telegram launched the number two app in the iOS App Store at the same time as Signal, with more than 400 million users. While Telegram offers end-to-end encryption, it is off by default and cannot be used on channels on the platform.
Privacy is in the spotlight.
Signal is different, not only because it has fancy cryptography that protects your calls, but because it was set up from the beginning to be different. The company does not show ads. It does not sell your information. It does not even take money. As a non-profit organization, it exists for a purpose, and is supported by donations.