Why WhatsApp users are pushing family members to Signal

A backlash movement against the messaging app is partly rooted in a distrust of its parent company, Facebook.

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Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
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Queenie Wong
6 min read

Encrypted messaging app Signal saw a spike in new downloads after Facebook-owned WhatsApp alerted users it was updating its privacy policy.

James Martin/CNET

When WhatsApp users started freaking out about privacy on the messaging app last month, Kevin Woblick knew it was time to encourage his family to move to another chat service: Signal.

The 30-year-old German software developer had broached the topic after Edward Snowden leaked classified documents detailing America's mass surveillance program. But Woblick couldn't convince his family to delete WhatsApp despite the Snowden news and the global uproar over digital privacy that followed. So this time, he took a gentler approach. 

"It wouldn't be too inconvenient to have a second messenger on your phone right?" he asked his family. He found it amusing that his grandma was the first to agree to download the app. Then, the rest of his family followed.

Woblick and his family are among the exodus of WhatsApp users bolting from the Facebook-owned messaging app to services like Signal that are seen as secure alternatives. Making the move isn't easy, because people naturally gravitate toward apps their friends and family use, and then stick with them. In India, WhatsApp's largest market, switching to another messaging service is even tougher because of its enormous reach. 

WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014 for $19 billion, is used by more than 2 billion people in over 180 countries. The popular app is an online space where people go to chat, shop and share news. More than 175 million people message a business on WhatsApp daily, allowing them to browse or buy items, ranging from cakes to flights. The messaging app, though, has also been criticized for not doing enough to curb the spread of misinformation that fuels violence. In 2018, false rumors about child kidnappers ignited mob violence and killings in India, prompting WhatsApp to limit message forwarding.

Outrage over privacy on WhatsApp began to grow in January, when the service notified users it was updating its privacy policy and terms of service. The update included details about how WhatsApp data could be used and shared when a user messages a business on the app. Some users thought the changes meant WhatsApp could read their messages and listen to their personal phone calls. WhatsApp said the messaging service can't read personal messages, because they're end-to-end encrypted, and that the changes wouldn't expand the app's ability to share data with Facebook. 

WhatsApp responded to the fallout, pushing back the update until May. It placed newspaper ads in India, shared more information on its website, and used Status, a tool that lets users post content that disappears within 24 hours, to assure people their personal WhatsApp messages remain private. 

By then, though, the damage had been done. 

From Jan.1 to Jan. 25, compared with Dec. 7 to Dec. 31, Signal installs jumped 4,868%, while downloads of WhatsApp fell roughly 16%, according to data from data analytics firm SensorTower. At one point, the surge in new users led to a daylong outage on Signal. A spokesperson for Signal said the app "had a record breaking January" but declined to say how many users are on the app. 

Unlike WhatsApp, Signal isn't owned by a company. It's funded by a nonprofit set up by Moxie Marlinspike and Brian Acton, who co-founded WhatsApp but left the social media giant in 2017. Besides the user outrage, the encrypted-messaging service has also been endorsed by high-profile figures, including Snowden and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Watch this: Why Signal is surging: Elon Musk

David Choffnes, an associate computer science professor at Northeastern University, said WhatsApp's policy updates could've rekindled concerns over Facebook's poor track record with privacy. He pointed to the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, a British political consultancy, that harvested the data of roughly 87 million Facebook users without their permission. 

"The whole world has lost a lot of trust in Facebook," Choffnes said, adding that the WhatsApp backlash "was sort of like a powder keg ready to ignite."

Nidhi Hegde, director of strategy and programs at the American Economic Liberties Project in Washington, DC, said her family uses a mix of WhatsApp and Signal. Some didn't want to switch to a new messaging service, especially after WhatsApp delayed its privacy updates. On Thursday, WhatsApp was No. 3 in Apple's top apps for social networking, and Signal was No. 12.

"I think what it has done is make a lot more people (like my mom and older relatives) who are not particularly tech-savvy or thinking about privacy become more aware of Facebook's power and how their personal data is mined for targeted advertising to feed Facebook's business," Hegde said in an email. "And they are now significantly concerned that they have no choice but to accept the terms."

What's up with WhatsApp?

Last month, WhatsApp users got a notice telling them the app's 3,800-word privacy policy and 5,000-word terms of service were being updated to include information about processing of user data, the ability of businesses to use Facebook services for managing chats, and the relationship between WhatsApp and Facebook. The notice linked to the revised policies but didn't outline the exact changes users were agreeing to if they accepted the updates.

The changes spell out what happens to your data when you message a business on WhatsApp, which is different from chatting with friends and family. Some businesses might make communications available to a third-party service provider that manages their chats with customers, which can include Facebook, the revised privacy policy says. WhatsApp labels chats with businesses that use Facebook's services to manage their conversations. A WhatsApp FAQ on the changes also notes that when a person messages a business, the store might use that information for marketing, which could include Facebook ads. 

Some users thought the updates meant WhatsApp was going to force them to share personal data with Facebook for the first time. (But WhatsApp has already been sharing data with Facebook to suggest content and connections, and display "relevant offers and ads." The company updated its privacy policy in 2016 to reflect that and WhatsApp users that year were allowed to opt out of this data sharing.) 

On social media, WhatsApp users quickly began sharing strategies about how to get family and friends to migrate to Signal or other messaging apps. 

Siddharth Rao created a public Google doc he shared on Twitter titled "How to start a conversation about the Signal app with your family." Rao, a security and privacy researcher in Finland, said he's trying to learn more from WhatsApp users about their experience migrating to Signal and whether they stayed after the move. Many of the people who added to the document still have "one leg" in WhatsApp and the other in Signal, he said. 

One strategy included in the document is to lie and tell people that WhatsApp is shutting down. Other tips include easing users into deleting WhatsApp after they've tried Signal, by disabling notifications for the Facebook-owned app.

Shachin Bharadwaj, an entrepreneur who splits his time between India and California, said he received anxious messages from his parents after the privacy changes were announced, concerned that WhatsApp was going to read their chats. The 38-year-old said he also recalled seeing videos, including one that called Facebook "evil" and claimed the company was planning to listen to users' conversations. 

Bharadwaj knows that private messages remain encrypted on WhatsApp, but that didn't stop him from downloading Signal last month. He's used WhatsApp to order items such as medication in India, but he feels like there's just "too much happening" on the Facebook-owned service and wants to keep his most personal chats, like his family chats, on Signal. He now splits his messaging between the apps.

"I don't think you can ever leave WhatsApp as of the situation in India today," Bharadwaj said, pointing to the amount of WhatsApp users in that country. "But my idea was to move quality conversations to Signal."

As for Woblick, he thinks it'll "take a lot of time" before he's comfortable deleting WhatsApp, because some of his friends stayed on the app. For now, however, he's OK with using both. "For me it was more important to do that first step and migrate the most important people and contacts to Signal so I'm able to work with them without needing to use WhatsApp," he said.