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Signal sees surge in new signups after boost from Elon Musk and WhatsApp controversy

Signal sees surge in new signups after boost from Elon Musk and WhatsApp controversy


The encrypted messaging app said it’s seeing a surge in new users

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Photo by Christoph Dernbach / picture alliance via Getty Images

Encrypted messaging app Signal says it’s seeing a swell of new users signing up for the platform, so much so that the company is seeing delays in phone number verifications of new accounts across multiple cell providers.

As for what or who is responsible for so many new users interested in trying the platform, which is operated by the nonprofit Signal Foundation, there are two likely culprits: Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Signal competitor WhatsApp.

Musk, who is now the world’s richest person after surpassing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in net worth, tweeted a meme last night criticizing Facebook for its role in helping members of the mob that stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday organize online. The tweet, an image of a series of ever-larger dominos, juxtaposed the start of Facebook as a hot-or-not women-rating website on the campus of Harvard University all the way into a platform that in one way or another helped facilitate the attack on Congress on Wednesday while it attempted to certify Joe Biden as the president-elect.

Musk, who has been more vocal in his criticism of Facebook in recent years, followed up the meme with a suggestion to his 41.5 million followers: download Signal, presumably instead of using a Facebook product (although Musk didn’t call out Facebook or WhatsApp specifically by name in either of his posts).

As for the WhatsApp controversy, that’s a bit more complicated. While it’s not immediately clear whether Musk was referencing or is even aware of the current WhatsApp privacy dustup, there is a growing backlash against the Facebook-owned messaging app resulting from the company’s plans to implement a new privacy policy on February 8th.

There’s a great explainer from Ars Technica here, but the short version is that WhatsApp has outlined a new privacy policy going into effect next month that no longer includes language indicating it will allow users to opt out of data sharing with parent company Facebook. Instead, the new policy expressly outlines how WhatsApp will share data (stuff like your phone number, profile name, and address book info) with Facebook.

“As part of the Facebook family of companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with, this family of companies,” the new privacy policy says. “We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings.”

Facebook says its new privacy policy changes nothing about consumer data sharing

As Ars reports, the opt out hasn’t actually existed in the app for some time — it was a one-time option introduced back in 2016, and WhatsApp’s privacy policy has kept language referencing it since. A Facebook spokesperson tells The Verge that the changes going into effect next month are designed to address data sharing between Facebook and WhatsApp with regard to messaging with businesses, and that nothing is effectively changing with regard to consumer chats.

Facebook says it disclosed these changes back in October with the announcement of new WhatsApp customer service and shopping features, some of which went live last month. It also says it will honor any WhatsApp user’s opt-out preference, even though the option to opt out hasn’t been available for new users for years, according to PCMag. And if you live in Europe, WhatsApp won’t share data with Facebook for ad-targeting purposes under any circumstances, as clarified by Niamh Sweeney, WhatsApp’s director of policy for the Europe, Middle East, and Africa market, in a Twitter thread.

But what’s happening now appears to be a bit of context collapse on social media, as WhatsApp users think they’re now being forced to share data with Facebook even though that’s been happening all along if they didn’t opt out back in 2016. None of this is helped by Facebook and WhatsApp’s recent attacks on Apple for the iPhone maker’s decision to mandate new self-reported labels on iOS apps and its future plans to force app makers to request permission to track Apple device owners.

The new privacy policy notice doesn’t help Facebook’s cause, either, considering it tells users displeased with the changes — which, again, are about how businesses manage their chats on WhatsApp using Facebook’s backend — to “delete their account,” with no other remedies provided.

All of this has created a perfect storm on social media in which WhatsApp users appear to be fleeing the platform in large numbers to join Signal, a nonprofit-run encrypted messaging app not owned by the largest social network on the planet. It’s worth mentioning too that Signal Messenger, LLC, the software organization that manages product development from Signal, was co-founded and funded by Brian Acton, the disillusioned WhatsApp co-founder who has publicly slammed his former employer’s privacy practices.

The silver lining for Signal is that this combination of events is generating a whole lot of interest for its platform as both a viable mobile messaging app and alternative to the Facebook ecosystem.

In response to the controversy, WhatsApp has issued a lengthy statement clarifying that the updated privacy policy “does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook”:

As we announced in October, WhatsApp wants to make it easier for people to both make a purchase and get help from a business directly on WhatsApp. While most people use WhatsApp to chat with friends and family, increasingly people are reaching out to businesses as well. To further increase transparency, we updated the privacy policy to describe that going forward businesses can choose to receive secure hosting services from our parent company Facebook to help manage their communications with their customers on WhatsApp. Though of course, it remains up to the user whether or not they want to message with a business on WhatsApp.

The update does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook and does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world. WhatsApp remains deeply committed to protecting people’s privacy. We are communicating directly with users through WhatsApp about these changes so they have time to review the new policy over the course of the next month.

Update January 7th, 4:42PM ET: Added statement from WhatsApp.