Signal sees ‘record pace’ of new users as WhatsApp goes ahead with controversial privacy update

New users are flocking to the encrypted messaging app Signal “at a record pace”, as WhatsApp pushes forward with a controversial privacy policy update.

A new set of terms and conditions from WhatsApp, under which it makes clear how it collects and shares certain user data, are set to come into effect on 15 May despite backlash. The terms apply to all WhatsApp users globally, and have prompted people to leave the platform in droves.

WhatsApp’s policy update was originally announced in early January but the messaging service’s parent Facebook said on 15 January that it would delay the update to its privacy policy following opposition from users. On 18 February the company said it would be going ahead with its privacy update.

A spokesman for WhatsApp rival Signal told Financial News that “people are switching over to Signal at a record pace”, adding that there would “no doubt be another rush of interest… when the WhatsApp policy comes into effect [in May]”.

“There has been a sustained increase in downloads ever since Facebook made the announcement back in January,” he said but declined to comment on numbers.

“We are still many multiples above where we used to be prior to the WhatsApp policy change notification,” he continued.

READ Banks rush to spy on traders’ Signal chats amid WhatsApp exodus

In response to Signal’s comments about a surge in users, a spokesman for Facebook told FN: “Other apps say they’re better because they know even less information than WhatsApp. We believe people are looking for apps to be both reliable and safe, even if that requires WhatsApp having some limited data.

“In fact, some of that limited data is how we are able to preserve the user experience by preventing people from spamming others and protecting against other kinds of abuse on WhatsApp.”

The spokesman added that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in its most recent earnings call that the social network’s “messaging services continue growing”.

“We strive to be thoughtful on the decisions we make and we’ll continue to develop new ways of meeting these responsibilities with less information, not more,” he continued.

A spokesman for Signal told FN in January that the company had seen a roughly 4,200% increase in downloads the week that the WhatsApp privacy policy was announced as compared to the week before. A rival app Telegram said in January it had surpassed 500 million users with over 25 million new accounts opened in the previous 72 hours.

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Some of the world’s largest financial services firms are trialling new technology to monitor employee conversations on WhatsApp in what is becoming a perpetual whack-a-mole game between employees and their compliance teams.

Use of WhatsApp has long been an issue for finance firms that have been forced to reprimand and even fire staff for using the popular encrypted messaging app inappropriately and ban communication through the platform. However, the pandemic forced banks to reconsider WhatsApp bans while a massive increase in the app’s use among home-working staff triggered a spike in the use of surveillance software to track communications.

Tens of thousands of workers at two global banks and one Asian lender are currently testing an app – developed by Hong Kong-based surveillance software provider LeapXpert – that enables compliance teams to track staff chats on Signal, FN reported in January. The tech also includes the ability to track WhatsApp, already popular among City workers, and its rival Telegram.

“WhatsApp is in fashion today. Tomorrow it’s Signal and God knows what will come in six months from now,” Avi Pardo, co-founder and chief operating officer at LeapXpert said. “An organisation needs to be future-proofed for all of the changes in the market.”

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Lucy McNulty