WhatsApp has been the most popular messaging app globally for years, and a large part of its parent Facebook’s success could be contributed to its tendency to vocalise the app’s security capabilities after introducing end-to-end encryption in 2016.

In a statement highlighting 2 billion users it crossed a year ago, Facebook reiterated its commitment to ensure WhatsApp would be a place for private conversations, claiming protection was now “more important than ever”.

This is why some users raised eyebrows after coming across a message asking them to accept a new privacy update in WhatsApp or their account faced oblivion, as they were concerned the change aimed to share more user information with Facebook.

Witnessing the user backlash, Facebook decided to step back from the plan temporarily, explaining the change wasn’t going to affect people’s personal communication, rather than setting new rules for contacting businesses on the app.

However, as little as ten days were enough for some users to search for substitute online communication means, and a number of rival app providers complied.

Facebook harvesting data
Signal, an app which claims to provide “state-of-the-art end-to-end encryption”, appears to have benefited following the WhatsApp controversy. Data by app intelligence company Apptopia estimated it recorded 31.6 million global downloads between 1 January and 28 January, up 2,368 per cent from nearly 1.3 million installs in the same period of 2020.

A Signal representative told Mobile World Live (MWL) its app was among the most popular titles globally, climbing to the top of download metrics in 70 countries including India, Germany, Brazil, France, the UK, Hong Kong and Iran.

The “giant wave” of newcomers to the app “feels as if the whole world has realised that Facebook isn’t making apps for them, but rather that Facebook is making apps to harvest their data”, the company stated.

It claimed the app doesn’t store and sell data, nor does it have “any insight into who you’re talking to or what you’re talking about”.

Telegram was another winner following the growing tension over WhatsApp’s planned policy. App analytics company Sensor Tower ranked it as the most downloaded non-gaming offering globally in January, hitting more than 63 million installs, or 3.8-times its downloads in January 2020.

The company’s CEO Pavel Durov highlighted in a blog the app surpassed the 500 million monthly active users mark in the first week of the year, with record new registrations gained in the following days.

Telegram’s chief explained the surge showed the app has become “the largest refuge” for people seeking a communication platform centred around security.

In his opinion, people no longer wanted to be “held hostage by tech monopolies” which thought they could “get away with anything” as long as their apps had vast amounts of users.

The operator-run play
Apart from the usual suspects of privacy-based communication apps, some operators also recorded usage spikes across their in-house platforms.

BiP, the messaging platform owned by Turkish operator Turkcell, has noticed uptake on a global scale.

The company’s CEO Murat Erkan (pictured, right) told MWL the number of new users outside Turkey reached 19 million by 1 February, bringing the total installs of the app to more than 70 million. BiP has topped the messaging app download rankings in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Bahrain, Jamaica and Malaysia, and was also extensively used in Ukraine, Germany and India.

Information sent in BiP is encrypted and gets deleted from the company’s systems after a message is transmitted, Erkan explained.

“Third parties can’t intercept and access or read your messages. As BiP, we do not receive, process or share any unauthorised data,” he said.

Another operator-owned messaging app noticing a rise in January was MTN Group’s Ayoba, which also claims a privacy-focused design. The South Africa-based company told MWL it recorded an increase in its organic growth which will be shared as part of its earnings reports in March.

The company said the app ensured user privacy by making it impossible for messages to be read or accessed by any third party, including MTN itself.

“The app features peer-to-peer private messaging which is end-to-end encrypted; Ayoba treats data with the utmost care and respect in line with its privacy policy,” it emphasised.

The meaning of it all for WhatsApp
Given the recent hurdles for WhatsApp in the face of declining user trust and rising competition, how big is the probability that Facebook could wave goodbye to its dominance in the app messaging market?

Figures from Sensor Tower for January showed the app was surpassed by Telegram, social media app TikTok, Signal and Facebook, meaning WhatsApp missed the top three rankings for the first time since September 2020.

Meanwhile, Apptopia calculated new installs of WhatsApp were 32.5 million between 1 January and 28 January, dropping 51 per cent year-on-year from 66.2 million installs.

While these figures seem significant at first glance, some argue the descent will not lead to a noticeable shift among the top messaging app providers anytime soon. Mobile data platform Start.io said in a blog the organic growth of Signal and Telegram was “relatively low” compared with WhatsApp, as the latter’s new user base rise was nearly eight-times higher than Signal’s and three-times higher than Telegram’s growth.

Realistically speaking, the recent turn of events might not have a huge impact on the overall position of Facebook and its subsidiaries in the digital services world.

However, it holds a valuable lesson: users are becoming increasingly vigilant about their online presence and how their data is treated, while companies are becoming more vocal about their privacy skills.

Eventually, the joke about people never reading an online service’s terms and conditions might as well result in users having the last laugh.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.