Neeraj Agrawal, a spokesman for a cryptocurrency think tank, has typically used the encrypted messaging app Signal to chat with privacy colleagues and colleagues. So he was surprised on Monday when the app notified him of two new users: Mom and Dad.
“Signal still had a subversive sheen,” said Agrawal, 32. “Now my parents are on it.”
On Telegram, another encrypted messaging app, Gavin McInnes, founder of the far-right Proud Boys group, had just announced his return. “Man, I haven̵
And on Twitter, billionaire founder Elon Musk also weighed in last week with a two-word caption: “Use signal.”
Over the past week, tens of millions of people have downloaded Signal and Telegram, making them the two hottest apps in the world. Signal allows messages to be sent with “end-to-end encryption”, which means that no one but the sender and recipient can read the content. Telegram offers some encrypted messaging options, but is largely popular for its group-based chat rooms where people can discuss a variety of topics.
Their sudden jump in popularity was spurred by a series of events last week that sparked growing concern about some of the major technology companies and their communications apps, such as WhatsApp, which Facebook owns. Technology companies, including Facebook and Twitter, removed thousands of far-right accounts – including President Trumps – after the storm at the Capitol. Amazon, Apple and Google also cut off support for Parler, a social network popular with Mr. Trump’s fans. In response, conservatives sought new apps where they could communicate.
At the same time, privacy concerns over WhatsApp increased, which last week reminded users in a pop-up alert that it was sharing some of its data with the parent company. The message triggered a wave of anxiety, driven by viral chain messages that erroneously claimed that Facebook could read WhatsApp messages.
The result was a mass migration that, if it lasts, could weaken the power of Facebook and other major technology companies. On Tuesday, Telegram said it added more than 25 million users in the previous three days, pushing 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 computing company.
“We’ve had big downloads before,” said Pavel Durov, CEO of Telegram, in a message in the app on Tuesday. “But this time is different.”
Carl Woog, a spokesman for WhatsApp, said that users’ privacy settings had not changed, and that rumors about which data was shared were largely unfounded.
“What does not change is that private messages to friends and family, including group chats, will be protected by end-to-end encryption so we can not see them,” he said.
The rise of Telegram and Signal may increase the debate over encryption, which helps protect the privacy of people’s digital communications, but which can stimulate the authorities in investigating crime because conversations are hidden.
In particular, the move of further right-wing groups to the apps has worried US authorities, some of whom are trying to track the planning for what could be violent rallies at or before the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. next week .
“The proliferation of encrypted platforms, where police can not even monitor rhetoric, allows groups with a bad intention to plan behind the curtain,” said Louis Grever, head of the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies.
Capitol Riot Fallout
Telegram has been especially popular with those on the far right because it mimics social media. So after Facebook and Twitter restricted Trump from their services last week, and other companies began gaining support from Parler, right-wing extremist groups on Parler and other frayed social networks posted links to new Telegram channels and encouraged people to join them there.
During the four hours after Parler went offline on Monday, a Proud Boys group on Telegram gained over 4,000 new followers.
“Do not trust Big tech,” read a message about a Proud Boys group on Parler. “We need to find safer rooms.”
On Signal, a militia group in Florida said on Monday that it organized its chats in small town-by-town groups limited to a few dozen people each, according to reports seen by The New York Times. They warned each other not to let in anyone they did not know personally, to prevent police authorities from spying on their conversations.
The flood of users of Telegram, which is based in Dubai, and Signal, which is based in Silicon Valley, goes far beyond just the American right-wing extremist. Mr. Durov said 94 percent of Telegram’s 25 million new users came from Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. Data from Apptopia showed that while the US was the number one source for Signal’s new users, the download of both apps increased in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere.
WhatsApp quickly said that people were wrong and that they could not see anything inside encrypted chats and conversations. But it was too late.
“The whole world seems to understand that Facebook does not build apps for them, Facebook builds apps for their data,” said Moxie Marlinspike, founder and CEO of Signal. “It took this little catalyst to push everyone over the edge to make a change.”
The fervor has been such that Moses Tsali, a rapper in Los Angeles, on Tuesday released a music video for the song “Hit Me On Signal.” And Musk’s approval of Signal last week sent listed shares of Signal Advance Inc., a small medical device maker, rising from a market value of around $ 50 million to more than $ 3 billion dollars. (The company has no affiliation with the messaging app.)
Some world leaders have also encouraged people to join them in the apps. On Sunday, the Twitter account of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico spoke about his new group on Telegram. By Wednesday, it had nearly 100,000 members.
Eli Sapir, CEO of Apptopia, said that while people’s concerns about Facebook’s data collection were fair, WhatsApp actually uses more secure encryption than Telegram. “It’s like going from some high 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 who was worried about WhatsApp.
“I was in shock because she got it before me,” she said. “We usually tell our parents about the new apps. Now we are suddenly the ones being informed. ”
Agrawal, the cryptocurrency worker, said that his parents had long been active in several WhatsApp group chats with fellow friends and relatives back in India. He said they told him they joined Signal to follow many of these calls that moved there, because some of the participants were concerned about WhatsApp’s new policy.
He said he knew the dangers of the WhatsApp policy were overestimated, but that much of the public did not understand how their data was being handled.
“They hear the most important things – data sharing, Facebook, privacy,” said Agrawal, “and it’s enough for them to say I had to quit.”