Neeraj Agrawal, a spokesman for a cryptocurrency think tank, has typically used the encrypted messaging app Signal to chat with privacy-minded colleagues and peers. So he was surprised on Monday when the app warned him of two new users: Mom and Dad.
“Signal still had a subversive sheen to it,” said Mr 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 that he was returning. “Man, I haven̵
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 thousands of millions have downloaded Signal and Telegram, making them the two hottest apps in the world. Signal makes it possible to send “end-to-end encryption” messages, which means that no one except the sender and the recipient can read its contents. 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 leap in popularity was spurred by a series of events last week that provoked growing anxiety over some of the big tech companies and their communications apps, like WhatsApp, which Facebook owns. Tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter, removed thousands of right-wing extremist accounts – including President Trumps – after the storm on the Capitol. Amazon, Apple and Google also cut off support for Parler, a social network popular with Mr. Trumps fans. In response, conservatives sought new apps where they could communicate.
At the same time, privacy concerns rose over WhatsApp, which last week reminded users in a pop-up message that it shares some of their data with its parent company. The message triggered a wave of anxiety driven by viral chain messages that mistakenly claimed that Facebook could read WhatsApp messages.
The result was a mass migration that, if it lasted, could weaken the power of Facebook and other major technology companies. On Tuesday, Telegram said it added more than 25 million users over 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 data company.
“We’ve had increases in downloads before,” Pavel Durov, Telegram’s chief executive, said in a message on the app on Tuesday. “But this time is different.”
Carl Woog, a spokesman for WhatsApp, said users’ privacy settings had not changed and that rumors about what data was being 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 can ignite in the debate over encryption, which helps protect privacy for people’s digital communications, but can spur authorities into crime investigations because conversations are hidden.
In particular, any move to apps by right-wing extremist groups has worried U.S. authorities, some of whom are trying to track the planning of what may become violent rallies at or before the inauguration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. next week .
“The proliferation of encrypted platforms, where law enforcement cannot even monitor rhetoric, allows groups with a bad intent to plan behind the curtain,” said Louis Grever, head of the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies.
Capitol Riot Fallout
Telegram has been particularly popular with those on the right because it mimics social media. So after Facebook and Twitter had restricted Mr. Trump to their services last week, and other companies began withdrawing their support from Parler, posting far-right groups on Parler and other social networking links to new Telegram channels, urging people to join them there.
In 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,” reads a message on a Proud Boys group on Parler. “We need to find safer spaces.”
On Signal, a Florida-based militia group said 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 anyone in, whom they did not know personally, to avoid police officers spying on their chats.
The river of users for Dubai-based Telegram and Silicon Valley-based Signal goes far beyond the US right-wing extremists. Sir. 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 # 1 source for Signal’s new users, downloads of both apps increased in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere.
Fears of WhatsApp’s privacy policies have driven Telegram and Signals’ popularity. While there was no meaningful change in how WhatsApp handles users’ data, people immediately interpreted the app’s privacy message last week to mean it infiltrated all kinds of personal information – like personal chat logs and voice calls – and shared that data with businesses.
WhatsApp quickly said that people were mistaken and that it could not see anything inside encrypted chats and calls. But it was too late.
“The whole world now 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 one little catalyst to push everyone over the edge to make a change.”
The burning has been such that Moses Tsali, a rapper in Los Angeles, on Tuesday released a music video for his song “Hit Me On Signal.” And Mr. Musk’s approval of Signal last week sent listed shares of Signal Advance Inc., a small manufacturer of medical devices, rising from a market value of approx. $ 50 million to more than $ 3 billion. (The company has no relation to the messaging app.)
Some world leaders have also encouraged people to join them in apps. On Sunday, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from Mexico spoke on Twitter about his new group on Telegram. On Wednesday, it had nearly 100,000 members.
Eli Sapir, Apptopia’s CEO, 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 content 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 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 the chats 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 does not understand how their data is handled.
“They hear these important things – data sharing, Facebook, privacy,” Agrawal said, “and it’s enough for them to say, ‘I have to get out of this.’