Signals from the world of privacy. Signal, the messaging app that makes privacy its flag, has exceeded 100 million downloads worldwide. Although it is a milestone to remember, it is not so much the overall numbers (still small when compared with Whatsapp or Telegram) that are striking as the growth recorded in the last three months.

The growth of Signal in the world

According to an analysis by SensorTower, of the 102 million installations, 61.4 million arrived in 2021. It means that the downloads have already quadrupled compared to those of the whole of 2020. And that Signal has been downloaded several times in the last three months than in its first five years of life. An even more impressive figure if we consider that in mid-March was blocked in China. The counterpart is India, the state with the highest number of downloads in 2021: there were 23 million, or 93% of the installations registered in the country since Signal was available.

Globally, the comparison with other messaging applications is still unequal, but the distance – once sidereal – has compressed: in 2021 Telegram was downloaded 131.5 million times and Whatsapp 130.3 million.

The growth of Signal in Italy

Italy, the 14th country in the world for number of installations, is also discovering Signal: in 2021, there were 784,000 downloads, already double that of the whole of 2020 and almost half of the total (1.7 million).

Since the beginning of the year, Telegram (1.6 million installations) and Whatsapp (1.4 million) have had a download volume comparable to that recorded by Signal throughout its history. New grains that are added to a substantial amount: since 2014, Telegram has collected 27 million downloads in Italy and 101.7 million Whatsapp downloads (i.e. in our country alone as many as Signal has obtained worldwide). The distance with the two leading apps, therefore, remains. But it has thinned.

No data, no advertising

Signal is highly regarded among activists and hackers and gained momentum in 2015. Edward Snowden, the man who revealed the US National Security Agency’s mass surveillance systems less than two years earlier, wrote on Twitter: “I use Signal every day”.

The endorsement of one of the standard bearers of confidentiality already tells the strength of Signal. The app has always had end-to-end encryption. It means that only those who send and those who receive the message can know its content. Whatsapp also works in the same way (since 2016): the contents are protected automatically.

On Telegram, on the other hand, end-to-end encryption is an option that users must activate. Signal, however, does more: it does not even collect so-called metadata (i.e. information on user behavior). To give an example: if Giovanni sends a message to Carla with the words “I’ll pass you at 8 pm”, Whatsapp does not see the content of the sentence but knows who she left from, what time, how many times Giovanni and Carla chat and so on.

Come underlined Vincenzo Cosenza, Whatsapp collects nine types of data such as these; Telegram stops at three. Signal to zero (phone number excluded): it does not track data or metadata, it does not store them (not even aggregated) and, consequently, cannot monetize them. Signal is able to do this because it does not live on advertising. The app is run by a non-profit foundation, chaired by Whatsapp co-founder Brian Acton and backed by private donations only. Last but not least: the application is open source. Those who have the skills and the desire to put their eyes on the code (the scaffolding that holds every app) can do it. To understand if there are flaws, flaws, “access doors” open to let government bodies or private companies enter.

The new privacy of Whatsapp

Signal is not a new application. But then why is it only now that it seems to come out of the niche? In between there is a change and a testimonial. Earlier this year, Whatsapp announced some changes to the privacy rules. End-to-end encryption remains, but there is greater sharing of data with the parent company, Facebook. European users, thanks to the GDPR, are more protected: a company cannot unilaterally take decisions of this type. But the Privacy Guarantor still spoke of “unclear” information.

The exploits of Signal and Telegram (downloaded, both globally and in Italy, several times by Whatsapp) are therefore children of a migration. Is it escape from the Zuckerberg app? Calm. It is objective that users are (also) looking elsewhere. But in Italy, Whatsapp has been installed four times as often as Telegram to date. It took half an uproar for the Russian-born app to outperform its competitor, currently only for a quarter. And then it should be remembered that installing does not mean using.

Musk, the unexpected testimonial

Although privacy is an issue that concerns everyone, migrations (or perhaps it would be better to say explorations) of this magnitude do not often occur. Awareness on the subject, compared to the times of Snowden, has increased. But it still affected mass consumption choices enough. In addition to the stumbling block of Whatsapp (forced to postpone the application of the new rules from February 8 to May 15), it took a name. Elon Musk often used Twitter to provoke and never hid his dislikes for the Facebook galaxy. On January 7th he chirped: “Use Signal”, use Signal.

The 2015 Snowden message had a greater specific weight because it was written by those who lost their careers for privacy and risked losing everything. It had had great echo but a popular response, all in all, modest: 1919 retweets, 65 citations and 2686 likes. There is no match with Tesla’s father, who reached out to his 50 million followers by collecting 47,067 retweets, 12,024 citations and 368,138 likes. Signal and privacy had been on stage for some time: they needed a spotlight. They found it in Elon Musk.

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