Analysis: Signal usage up 80% in a month while WhatsApp is holding steady

There are a handful of tech giants in the social media and messaging space that have been dominating for some time – Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger – and all of these services are now owned by the same company: Facebook.

Continued concerns about Facebook’s handling of user data might be motivating some people to consider shutting off the firehose of personal data pouring into Facebook. But these concerns might not be enough to convince the vast majority of people to abandon Facebook services altogether.

Facebook and its bad privacy track record

Facebook collects an enormous amount of user data and the company has been known to share it with third parties without permission. It’s not the contents of your messages or your conversations (we debunked the ‘listening’ theory), instead, it’s the metadata, where you go, what Wi-Fi hotspot you connect to, who you are friends with and interact with the most, who they are friends with and interact with the most. Plus the tracking code that tracks your online activity and purchases, outside Facebook properties.

That’s not to say there is anything wrong with Facebook collecting a certain level of data in order to serve its users better. Whether you care about your online privacy or not, you as a user, should have the right to know and control what information is being collected and shared, and with whom and what for. Apple agrees.

Apple forces more transparency with app privacy labels

As a cybersecurity company with a particular focus on portable form factors, we keep a close eye on the privacy updates of two major platforms: Apple and Google. On December 14, Apple introduced app privacy labels, which require all apps on its App Store to be transparent about how they handle your data.

At Wandera, we independently analyze the permissions of all the apps used within our customer base and you wouldn’t believe some of the weird connections we identify, such as weather apps asking for your email address… they really don’t need that information to deliver your weather forecast. This excessive information gathering by apps has been referred to as ‘permissions abuse’.

Apple’s new app privacy labels help end-users to identify ‘permissions abuse’ before they even download an app. Simply go to an app’s listings on the App Store and check the App Privacy section for a full list of ‘data linked to you’.

This article shows a side-by-side comparison of the ‘data linked to you’ across popular messaging services. The two Facebook-owned messaging properties (WhatsApp and Messenger) gather a lot more user data than similar messaging services (iMessage and Signal). These apps all have similar functionality, but a different approach to privacy.

WhatsApp is about to share more data with Facebook… Do people care?

WhatsApp’s original selling point was about private, encrypted messaging, so in early January when WhatsApp announced an update to its privacy policy regarding tighter integration with Facebook and consequently more data flowing between the two platforms, it sent many privacy-conscious users into a spin.

WhatsApp was set to start prompting users on February 8 to accept the updated terms in order to continue using the app but due to the confusion and backlash, that date has now been pushed back to May 15. This move by Facebook has reportedly coincided with people flocking to popular alternative, Signal.

We wanted to see how recent news has impacted the usage of messaging apps. Let’s start with a snapshot of the current popularity of four popular messaging apps: WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram, and Signal. 

Now let’s look at how people are using WhatsApp and Signal over time. This graph represents the change in the number of daily users compared to the average number of daily users in September 2020.

Usage has remained steady for both WhatsApp and Signal throughout most of our analysis. However, Signal has recently seen a large increase in daily users, currently registering an 86% increase compared to an average day in September 2020.

Perspective matters

We can only speculate as to why Signal is experiencing a surge in usage. It might be that users have become more aware of how much data Facebook is collecting thanks to Apple’s app privacy labels which were announced in mid-December. Or it might also be due to the flurry of information around the pending update to WhatsApp’s privacy policy that occurred in early January. Perhaps a combination of both.

We should note, that although Signal has seen significant growth, it still only has 1/50th of the daily users we see using WhatsApp.

Further, while Signal shows significant and continued growth in January, Telegram still has a larger share of daily users. We expect Signal might overtake Telegram if the current trend continues.  

People likely won’t leave WhatsApp until all their contacts and groups are reachable on alternative services such as Signal, which is probably why we haven’t seen an immediate drop off in WhatsApp usage, and we may not for quite some time (if at all) per the network effect.

A note on Wandera’s dataset:

We carried out the analysis in this report using proprietary customer data gathered by the Wandera Security Cloud, which utilizes 425 million sensors to gather data. This data is used by Wandera to identify security and access trends, and every byte of user and business information is anonymized to protect individual usage data. Our user base is composed of devices that serve some work function – both those that are personally-owned and those that are company-owned and managed.