Silicon Valley-based encrypted messaging app Signal and Dubai-based Telegram became the two hottest apps in the world over the past week. Tens of millions of new users have signed up over fears of censorship, government surveillance and privacy breaches along with concerns about being tracked for advertising.
On Tuesday, Telegram said it gained 25 million-plus users in the previous three days, pushing it to more than 500 million users. Most of those new users — 94 percent — came not from the U.S. but from Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, according to Telegram CEO Pavel Durov, New York Times reported. Durov is an entrepreneur who created Russia’s largest social network, VKontakte or VK.
Signal, a nonprofit funded mostly by WhatsApp co-founder and former Facebook executive Brian Acton, added close to 1.3 million users on Monday this week after averaging 50,000 downloads a day in 2020, according to estimates from Apptopia, an app-data firm. As with Telegram, most of Signal’s new user adoption is coming from outside the U.S. Signal said that as of Wednesday it was the No. 1 app in 70 countries on iOS devices and in 45 countries on Android devices. India is one of the top areas for new user growth.
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What Signal and Telegram have in common is end-to-end encryption outside the reach of big tech, Wall Street Journal reported. Encrypted messaging apps promise more security and privacy than plain text messaging such as Facebook’s WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage. WhatsApp and Apple iMessage also offer end-to-end encryption, but within their respective ecosystems.
With encryption, a recipient can still forward your message or take a screenshot, and others can see your messages if they have access to your phone.
However, end-to-end encryption is so secure that the U.S. government has criticized the technology, saying the apps make it hard to track down criminals. Encryption can protect everyone, including the bad guys, WSJ reported. On Dec. 2, 2015, 14 people died and 22 were injured in a terrorist attack in San Bernadino, California. The Justice Department sued Apple for access to the shooter’s encrypted iPhone. Apple refused and the suit was dropped after the government used another method to access the phone.
Censorship became a motivating force when Twitter and Facebook took down thousands of far-right accounts including President Trump’s after mobs stormed the Capitol. Apple, Google and Amazon cut off support for Parler, a social network popular with Trump fans. Conservatives responded by finding new apps where they can communicate.
The power of web hosting giants like Amazon to cut off sites and infrastructure has some in the cryptocurrency industry worried about blockchain-related projects, Coin Telegraph reported.
Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin tweeted that Parler’s takedown was “very worrying”. He said Amazon Web Services was more of a “common infrastructure provider” than a social media site.
Privacy worries spiked when WhatsApp recently reminded users in a pop-up notification that it shares some of their data with its parent company, Facebook. “The notification set off anxiety fueled by viral chain messages that falsely claimed that Facebook could read WhatsApp messages,” WSJ reported.
What Facebook can do, if subpoenaed, is reveal your full name, everything you’ve said on Facebook Messenger and a list of geographical locations you’ve accessed your account, according to Chris Hoffman from HowToGeek.
That differs from Signal, where all data in your Signal app including messages, pictures and files are stored locally on your phone. “Most companies collect a lot of data. Signal tries not to. Even if Signal is subject to a subpoena on you and forced to disclose what it knows about you, the company knows almost nothing about you and your Signal activity. Signal could reveal only your account’s phone number, last connection date, and account creation time,” Hoffman wrote.
Many phone apps collect and monetize location-tracking data and there are few regulations to restrict them, according to the Intercept. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI since 2017, has warned that “terrorism today moves at the speed of social media.” During testimony in 2020, Wray warned lawmakers that threats from “everything from anarchist groups to racially-motivated violent extremist groups” tend to “begin mostly online.”
Critics of federal government-imposed regulations worry their First Amendment-protected speech will be encroached upon. The FBI has used surveillance and racial profiling for decades, especially on Black activists, said Mary Zerkel, coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Communities Against Islamophobia program.
“We are deeply concerned that the FBI is further expanding their surveillance capacity,” Zerkel said. The FBI signed an expedited agreement on June 9, 2020 to extend its relationship with Dataminr, a company that monitors social media, after demonstrations around the country erupted over the police killing of George Floyd, Intercept reported.
After Parler went offline on Monday, a Proud Boys Telegram group gained more than 4,000 new followers within four hours, driven by fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies, according to the New York Times.
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Traditional messaging apps such as Facebook can access everything you say in Facebook Messenger. Facebook says it won’t use the content of your messages for advertising, but that could change, according to HowToGeek.
Signal, by comparison, isn’t owned by a big tech company. It’s developed by a nonprofit foundation and funded by donations. “Unlike Facebook, Signal’s owners aren’t even trying to make money. Signal doesn’t try to gather a bunch of data on you or show you advertisements,” Hoffman wrote.
Signal founder Acton has a net worth of $2.5 billion and is the world’s 836th-richest person on the Forbes list.
Before he co-founded WhatsApp, Acton was a Yahoo software engineer. He left over the company’s relentless focus on moneymaking, Forbes reported. “Dealing with ads is depressing,” Acton told Forbes in 2014. “You don’t make anyone’s life better by making advertisements work better.”
Jennifer King, a privacy and data fellow at Stanford’s artificial intelligence institute, said she uses Signal.
“It’s not about hiding the communications itself. It’s more that there’s an overarching sense that the number of digital spaces today where you can assume someone is not collecting data from you is increasingly small,” King said, according to WSJ.