From WhatsApp to Signal
When I discovered that WhatsApp was owned by Facebook (now Meta) I decided it was time to move to Signal for messaging. While messages can be encrypted on both apps, encryption is done by default on Signal. Additionally, Meta and its affiliated companies use WhatsApp to collect user data. Signal's only requirement is a phone number. Making the change was simple: I deleted WhatsApp on my smartphone and installed Signal.
Before learning about Facebook's ownership of WhatsApp, I had already begun to investigate alternatives. This was due to the way WhatsApp handles your contacts list. At the time, using WhatsApp required access to your entire address book. I could not find a way around this. I did not want to everyone in my contacts list to be able to see that I was on WhatsApp. Some entries in my address book are work-contacts, and I had no interest in enabling a social media relationship with all these people by default. WhatsApp's all-or-nothing approach to my contacts list felt unnecessarily intrusive. Why couldn't I choose who to start a conversation with?1
Signal is designed to never collect or store any sensitive information. Signal messages and calls cannot be accessed by us or other third parties because they are always end-to-end encrypted, private, and secure.
Once Signal was up and running, I sent invitations to the handful of people I wanted to use the app with. I was beginning to learn about ideas like 'open source' and 'end-to-end encryption' and tried to use Signal's claims about user privacy as a selling point to try and win my friends over to using the app, so I could talk to them there.
I saw very little difference in the user experiences of WhatsApp and Signal. Both were responsive with user-friendly interfaces. Both allowed group chats and audio and video calls, and both allowed file sharing. Signal also had a wide range of emojis and GIFs to choose from for quick responses. Signal seemed like one of the first privacy-based decisions where the more private alternative worked just as well as the standard app.
I had read about Telegram and downloaded that too. I had one friend on Telegram for a while and we used that as our main communication channel.
Loneliness. Silence. Initially, no one joined me on Signal, and this lasted for months. I persuaded one colleague with an interest in online privacy to join, and some while later my siblings joined too. Having my family members join Signal was an important moment for me, because they live abroad and I had been worried about the losing regular contact when I dropped out of the family WhatsApp groups. My parents joined shortly after that. I basically had to be patient and hope more people would come on board.
It took a while for my partner and oldest child (then in high school) to be persuaded to download Signal and connect there. This made me think about the strange relationship people have with apps on their devices; when an app is popular, no matter how quick its rise, we don't think twice about installing it. But when an app is unknown we become cautious, perhaps understandably so. Even when the practical reality is that most apps take up very little space and can be installed or deleted in seconds.
Current use and looking ahead
I convinced my one Telegram friend to move our conversation over to Signal, and then deleted Telegram. I had heard mixed reviews on the reliability of Telegram's privacy policies, and I didn't really need two messenger apps.
While still small compared to WhatsApp's user base, Signal continued to grow into a fairly well-known alternative messenger, but that growth is now declining again.4
When my middle child was ready for a smartphone, I installed Signal first, though WhatsApp snuck in later. Both are used on that device.
Signal can be installed from all of the main app stores. You can find a desktop download (Mac, Windows, Linux) here.
Signal's privacy policies can be read here.
I found this "Signal Revenue & Usage Statistics (2022)" article quite interesting.
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There were complex loopholes: getting someone already on WhatsApp to contact you first seemed to enable replying without giving up all your contacts. Perhaps this has been improved now.↩
'Use Signal', he tweeted.↩
See Frances Haugen on Wikipedia.↩
Statistics in 2022 are: WhatsApp 2 billion active users, Facebook Messenger 988 million active users (source). At its peak in 2021, Signal had 40 million downloads(source), with the number of daily active users now in decline.↩