New Delhi: Chat app WhatsApp’s popularity in India seems to be immune to privacy concerns.
The app’s privacy framework came into question among users on account of the reportage on actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death and the alleged Bollywood drugs scandal it “uncovered”, what with media outlets extensively using purported private chats involving different people.
However, through the worries and many jokes, WhatsApp downloads in India have continued to increase.
In the last week of September, when the fervent speculation about privacy on WhatsApp led the Facebook-owned app to issue a statement in its defence, its downloads in India surpassed the numbers recorded in previous months.
According to data sourced from the Apple App store and Google Play store by US-based app intelligence firm Sensor Tower, WhatsApp was downloaded an estimated 81 lakh times in July, 98 lakh times in August, and 1.14 crore times in September.
Within September, there were 86 lakh downloads from 1 to 23 September, and 28 lakh in the last week, 24-30 September. This means that the first three weeks of September saw 3,73,913 WhatsApp downloads per day, as compared to 4 lakh/day in the last week.
A similar trend emerged when WhatsApp was hit by a hacking controversy in late 2019 — it returned to the top of the numbers game after a brief hit in downloads.
Speaking to ThePrint, experts attributed WhatsApp’s continued popularity to its vast reach — it is estimated to have more than 40 crore users in India alone — and the fact that it’s easy to use.
“It is popular, because it is popular. Everyone is on WhatsApp, so everyone else is also on WhatsApp. It is network effect at play,” said Sajith Pai, a venture capitalist with the Mumbai-based investment firm Blume Ventures.
WhatsApp found itself in a massive controversy over the past few weeks as certain media outlets began to feature “leaked” chats in their reports about an alleged drugs scandal involving top Bollywood celebrities.
This investigation was an offshoot of the probe into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death on 14 June, and purported private chats — involving him, his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty and others — made their way into the public domain in this case too.
While the media outlets’ access to the chats provided much fodder for social media humour, there were concerns about the security of conversations conducted on WhatsApp.
As the concerns started gaining traction online, on 25 September, WhatsApp issued a statement saying the platform is secure, and encouraged users to practise habits that will prevent third parties from potentially accessing their messages.
“WhatsApp protects your messages with end-to-end encryption so that only you and the person you’re communicating with can read what is sent, and nobody in between can access it, not even WhatsApp,” it said.
“It’s important to remember that people sign up on WhatsApp using only a phone number, and WhatsApp doesn’t have access to your message content. WhatsApp follows guidance provided by operating system manufacturers for on-device storage and we encourage people to take advantage of all the security features provided by operating systems such as strong passwords or biometric IDs to prevent third parties from accessing content stored on the device,” the WhatsApp statement said.
This is similar to what happened in 2019, when WhatsApp users were found to have been hacked using a spyware named Pegasus. In October 2019, it was reported that around 1,400 people across the world — including at least two dozen in India — had been hacked through WhatsApp with the use of the sophisticated spyware.
WhatsApp’s ranking slipped marginally to number 4 at the peak of the snooping scandal between 28 and 31 October 2019, and then again on 2 and 3 November, but it was back at number 1 in India by December, according to Sensor Tower data.
Worldwide, it was the most downloaded non-gaming app in November 2019.
How other apps fared
To compare WhatsApp downloads with other apps in the encrypted-chat space, Signal registered a fall between July and September.
In July, Signal had approximately 1,18,000 downloads. In August, this had halved to an estimated 59,000 downloads. In September, Sensor Tower data suggests, the app registered 62,000 downloads.
Signal and Telegram, another messaging app offering encrypted or secure communication, have seen a marginal increase in daily downloads between 1 and 23 September, and the last week of the month, the time windows employed to map the impact of the privacy controversy on WhatsApp.
Signal was downloaded approximately 1,870 times/day between 1 September and 23 September, and 2,714 times/day from 24 September to 30 September.
Telegram saw an estimated 213,043 downloads/day between 1 September and 23 September, and 242,857 in the last week.
Why WhatsApp is so popular
Asked about WhatsApp’s popularity, Sajith Pai of Blume Ventures said “it is a great product”.
Venture capitalists are constantly on the lookout for promising tech products to invest in, in exchange for an equity stake, and thus have a pulse on the market.
“It (WhatsApp) is very easy to use and everyone from the next billion user (a new user to the internet) to seasoned corporate warriors can use it at their own level of comfort. Security concerns are of consequence only to journalists and .00001 per cent of Indians,” he added.
“None of us has anything confidential there that Pegasus tracking will cause concerns. The people who are highly security conscious have moved to Signal anyway.”
Signal is believed to be one of the most secure chat apps in the world.
Osama Manzar, founder and director of the Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation, which works to increase digital literacy, especially across rural India, echoed the opinion.
“It is the most easy app to use for interpersonal messaging, it is multifunctional that suits Indian users, who are mostly oral and multilingual and who can use all those functionalities that enable them to share and interact without being written literate,” he said.
“It has reached such a level of mass adoption that everyone feels it necessary to communicate with their peers — professionally as well as personally. It is also the most useful app for doing office work, to manage work, to manage groups for professional work management, and for doing business for micro and nano enterprises,” he added.