New Delhi: It’s been a week since WhatsApp threw the world into a tizzy with a notification on its latest policy change that effectively bars users from the service if they don’t agree to the terms.
In response, users came out against the messaging service and its parent company Facebook, with memes, jokes and more pertinently, by talking about or actually migrating to other messaging services.
Applications like Signal and Telegram have now become the buzz words, especially since the world’s richest man Elon Musk put out a tweet saying “Use Signal”.
WhatsApp’s policy and terms of services change, that kicks in on 8 February, has led to speculation that it affects user privacy by sharing data with Facebook. It has since been on damage control, issuing statements to assure users that message privacy remains, updating its FAQ section, and even taking out full, front page ads in newspapers in India.
Meanwhile, Signal and Telegram, which are better known in India, have witnessed growth in downloads.
According to a Mint report, Signal was downloaded 2.3 million times between 6 and 10 January in India, based on data from app analytics firm Sensor Tower data. Telegram recorded 1.5 mn downloads in the same time.
Between 1 and 5 January, Signal was downloaded only 24,000 times while Telegram was downloaded 1.3 million times, the Mint report added. News of WhatsApp’s change broke on 4 January, picking up steam around 6 January.
For both Signal and Telegram, India was the biggest growth market, according to a Business Insider report.
But these aren’t the only two alternatives. There’s also Briar and Threema.
ThePrint takes a closer look at all four alternatives to WhatsApp.
Globally, Signal has seen its downloads increase by 4,200 per cent with the app being downloaded around 7.5 million times between 6 and 10 January.
Signal downloads were likely spurred by several endorsements, including from Musk, whistleblower Edward Snowden and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
While Musk directly urged users to switch apps, Snowden, who is wanted in the US on espionage charges, tweeted: “I use it every day and I’m not dead yet”. Dorsey was slightly more cryptic, and posted a heart emoji with a picture of Signal topping an app download chart.
Based in California, Signal was launched in 2014 by Open Whisper Systems, a collaborative software development project to which engineers are said to voluntarily contribute their efforts.
Since 2018, the app has been financially sustained by a non-profit organisation that WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton helped create.
Both Signal and WhatsApp use the same encryption protocol developed by Open Whisper Systems.
Acton’s last tweet, in March 2018, says: “It is time. #deletefacebook.”
It is time. #deletefacebook
— Brian Acton (@brianacton) March 20, 2018
Telegram said on 12 January it crossed 500 million active users with 25 million new users “in the last 72 hours”. The majority of these users (38 per cent) are from Asia.
Telegram surpassed 500 million active users. 25 million new users joined in the last 72 hours: 38% came from Asia, 27% from Europe, 21% from Latin America and 8% from MENA. https://t.co/1LptHZb9PQ
— Telegram Messenger (@telegram) January 12, 2021
Telegram was launched in 2013 by Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, also the founders of Moscow’s most popular social networking site VK.
The service seems to benefit from mishaps to Facebook-owned apps, including WhatsApp.
In March 2019, Telegram added 3 million users in 24 hours when Facebook Inc. faced a downtime. Co-founder and CEO Pavel reacted by saying: “Good. We have true privacy and unlimited space for everyone.”
In 2015, Snowden had warned that Telegram’s default method of storing messages is “unsafe”.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) December 19, 2015
However, Durov countered this by saying the app doesn’t save plain text messages and users who are looking for a more secure way of chatting use Telegram’s ‘secret chat’ feature that does not have a cloud sync. He also said deleted texts are gone forever and there is no back-up version saved on the platform’s servers.
Briar is among the lesser known apps on this list. According to the Google Play Store, since its release in April 2018, Briar has gathered just about 100,000 downloads on the Android app store.
“Briar is a messaging app designed for activists, journalists, and anyone else who needs a safe, easy and robust way to communicate,” says the company website. It adds: “Unlike traditional messaging apps, Briar doesn’t rely on a central server — messages are synchronized directly between the users’ devices.”
Like Signal, Briar is also based on open source software, which means the software code that runs the app is public and open to scrutiny.
Briar app was developed by Europe-based professionals focusing on privacy, freedom of speech and technology, including computer scientist Michael Rogers who did a PhD from the University College London, security expert Eleanor Saitta based in Finland, and UK-based Bernard Tyers, who works on interaction design of digital products.
Briar supports encrypted communication and can work without the internet by using bluetooth to send messages. This is helpful during a situation like a protest where the internet could be shutdown and users are in close range of each other (bluetooth typically works in range upto 10 metres).
When Briar sends data over the internet, it does so through the Tor network, a free and open source network popular for its encryption that makes tracking users difficult.
Threema is also an open source platform, and prides itself on being a Swiss company.
“Precision, reliability, and discretion are typical Swiss characteristics, and as a true Swiss company, Threema lives these values every day,” states the company website.
The company claims to own servers in “in two independent and physically separated locations in Switzerland”.
The first version of the application was released in 2012 and was the work of three software engineers — Manuel Kasper, Silvan Engeler, and Martin Blatter.
As of January 2020, Threema had over 8 million users.
However, the chat app is not free to use unlike other mobile applications on this list. It costs Rs 270 on the Google Play Store.
If you are wondering how the name came to be, the company explains: “The app is called ‘End-to-End Encrypted Messaging Application’. ‘EEEMA’ for short. Soon, the three Es are replaced by ‘Three’, and it becomes ‘Threema’.”