Neeraj Agrawal, a spokesperson for a cryptocurrency think tank, has typically used the encrypted messaging app Signal to chat with privacy-conscious colleagues and colleagues. So he was surprised on Monday when the app warned him about two new users: mom and dad.
"Signal still had a subversive glow," 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 his return. "Man, I haven't posted here in a while," he wrote on Sunday. "I will be posting regularly."
And on Twitter, Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur, also weighed in last week with a two-word endorsement: & # 39; Use signal & # 39 ;.
In the past week, tens of millions of people have received Signal and Telegram, making them the two most popular apps in the world. Signal allows messages to be sent with "end-to-end encryption", meaning that only the sender and receiver can read the content. Telegram offers a number of encrypted messaging options, but it is especially 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 tech companies and their communication apps, such as WhatsApp, that Facebook owns. Technology companies, including Facebook and Twitter, removed thousands of far-right accounts – including President Trump's – after the storming of the Capitol. Amazon, Apple and Google have also discontinued support for Parler, a social network popular with Mr. Trump's fans. In response, conservatives began looking for new apps they could interact with.
At the same time, privacy concerns increased over WhatsApp, which reminded users in a pop-up notification last week that it shares some of their data with its parent company. The report sparked a wave of fear, fueled by viral chain messages falsely claiming that Facebook could read WhatsApp messages.
The result was a mass migration that, if it continues, could weaken the power of Facebook and other major technology companies. On Tuesday, Telegram said it has added more than 25 million users in the past three days, pushing it to more than 500 million users. According to estimates by Apptopia, an app data company, Signal added nearly 1.3 million users on Monday alone, after an average of just 50,000 downloads per day last year.
“We've had a massive increase in downloads before,” said Pavel Durov, Telegram CEO, in an in-app post on Tuesday. "But it's different this time."
Carl Woog, a WhatsApp spokesperson, said users' privacy settings had not changed and rumors of what data is shared were largely unfounded.
“What doesn't change is that private messages to friends and family, including group chats, are protected by end-to-end encryption so that we can't see them,” he said.
The rise of Telegram and Signal would be the debate over encryption, which helps protect the privacy of people's digital communications, but can hinder authorities from crime investigations because conversations are hidden.
Any move from far-right groups in particular to the apps has worried U.S. authorities, some of whom are trying to track the schedule for what could become violent rallies on or ahead of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s inauguration. next week .
"The proliferation of coded platforms, where law enforcement officials cannot even follow rhetoric, allows groups with bad intentions to make plans behind the scenes," said Louis Grever, head of the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies.
Fallout from Capitol Riot
Telegram is especially popular with the far right because it mimics social media. So after Facebook and Twitter limited Mr Trump to their services last week and other companies started pulling their support from Parler, far-right groups on Parler and other fringe social networks posted links to new Telegram channels and urged people to commit themselves. to add there.
In the four hours after Parler went offline on Monday, a Proud Boys group on Telegram gained more than 4,000 new followers.
"Don't trust Big Tech," Parler read about a Proud Boys group. "We will have to find safer spaces."
On Signal, a Florida-based militia group said Monday it organized its chats in small, city-by-city groups limited to a few dozen people each, according to reports from The New York Times. They warned each other not to let anyone in they did not know personally, to prevent law enforcement from spying on their chats.
The flow of users to Telegram, which is based in Dubai, and Signal, which is based in Silicon Valley, goes well beyond the US far-right. 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 United States was the # 1 source for new Signal users, downloads of both apps increased in India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere.
WhatsApp was quick to say that people were mistaken and couldn't see anything in encrypted chats and calls. But it was too late.
"The whole world now seems to understand that Facebook isn't building apps for them, but Facebook is building apps for their data," said Moxie Marlinspike, Signal's founder and CEO. "It took this one little catalyst to push everyone over the edge to make a change."
The fervor was such that Moses Tsali, a Los Angeles rapper, released a video for his song on Tuesday: "Hit Me On Signal. And the approval of Signal by Mr. Musk last week sent publicly traded shares of Signal Advance Inc., a small medical device manufacturer, rising from a market value of about $ 50 million to more than $ 3 billion. (The company has no relationship 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 from Mexico spoke about his new group on Telegram. Wednesday it had almost 100,000 members.
Eli Sapir, the 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 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 behest of a friend who was concerned about WhatsApp.
“I was in shock because she had it before,” she said. “We usually tell our parents about the new apps. Now we are suddenly the ones who are being informed. "
Mr. Agrawal, the cryptocurrency employee, said his parents have long been active in various WhatsApp group chats with college friends and relatives in India. He said they told him they had joined Signal to follow many of the chats that moved there, as some participants were concerned about WhatsApp's new policy.
He said he knew the dangers of WhatsApp policy were exaggerated, but that a large portion of the public does not understand how their data is handled.
"They hear those important things – data sharing, Facebook, privacy," said Mr. Agrawal, "and that's enough for them to say, I have to get rid of it."