14 January 2021

The New York Times: “Millions flock to Telegram and Signal as Fears Grow over Big Tech”

Over the past week, tens of millions of people have downloaded Signal and Telegram, making them the two hottest apps in the world. Signal allows messages to be sent with “end-to-end encryption”, meaning no one but the sender and receiver can read its contents. Telegram offers some encrypted messaging options, but is largely popular for its group-based chat rooms where people can discuss a variety of subjects.

Their sudden jump in popularity was spurred by a series of events last week that stoked growing anxiety over some of the big tech companies and their communication apps, like WhatsApp, which Facebook owns. Tech companies including Facebook and Twitter removed thousands of far-right accounts — including President Trump’s — after the storming of the Capitol. Amazon, Apple and Google also cut off support for Parler, a social network popular with Mr. Trump’s fans. In response, conservatives sought out new apps where they could communicate.

At the same time, privacy worries rose over WhatsApp, which last week reminded users in a pop-up notification that it shares some of their data with its parent company. The notification set off a wave of anxiety, fueled by viral chain messages that falsely claimed that Facebook could read WhatsApp messages.

Jack Nicas, Mike Isaac & Sheera Frenkel

Fascinating how quickly rumors and half-truths spread. The latest changes to WhatsApp’s privacy policy are less substantial than some people fear, and they do not affect end-to-end messaging encryption in any way. But the constant association with Facebook and its regular privacy scandals is starting to wear off on WhatsApp public perception as well.

Personally, I expect this sudden rush to migrate to alternative messaging apps to quickly subside, as people run into inertia from their social circles and the friction of using multiple apps. For example you will not be able to forward messages and photos as easily between chats, because you have to save pictures on the phone and manually share them to a new app; you also cannot have group chats unless every member uses the same app. Few people understand the different encryption options across apps – I’ve had people arguing that Facebook Messenger is more secure than WhatsApp, despite not being encrypted by default.

Another more perverse consequence of banning Donald Trump from (public) social media is that his far-right supporters are switching to private, encrypted networks, such as Telegram, where their activities and coordination will be impossible to follow. As I have written before, encryption is not a black-and-white issue with a simple yes-or-no solution. In this particular case law enforcement and public safety would benefit from surveillance of these potentially violent groups.

Bolsonaro and Erdogan start new channels on Telegram

The Telegram founder welcoming Bolsonaro and Erdogan on his platform is also not an encouraging prospect for the future… Seems to me Pavel Durov would like to position Telegram as a less restricted, more private alternative to Twitter, the place where world leaders and public figures communicate to their followers, but the last thing authoritarian leaders need is another platform where to spread disinformation and propaganda with impunity.

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