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Will This Excellent New Signal Messenger Update Make WhatsApp Users Switch?

Zak Doffman

Despite its continued dominance of the secure messaging space, now delivering some 100 billion messages each day, WhatsApp is coming under more pressure than ever before. Until recently, it was the only secure messenger that would work cross-platform and that would likely appeal to all your friends and contacts. But as the messaging wars continue to heat up, rivals sense an opportunity to solicit WhatsApp users.

WhatsApp has one major advantage over these rivals—the sheer scale of its install base. With two billion users, you can almost guarantee your contacts have the app. And that makes it the only secure platform that’s a genuine SMS alternative. Telegram remains surprisingly outside the mainstream, given its 400 million users. iMessage cannot extend outside Apple’s ecosystem without reverting to unsecured SMS. All the others are too small—for now.

But WhatsApp also has two huge disadvantages. First, its missing functionality—no option to access messages from multiple devices, the desktop scrape from your phone doesn’t count, and no secure backup option which means no secure means to move your chat history to new phone. And, second, the biggie—WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, which is even now beginning to properly monetize the platform. And, like it not, there’s a sizable percentage of that 2 billion strong userbase that simply doesn’t trust Facebook. And this will be made worse as news continues to leak out about the integration of Facebook’s commercial machine and your WhatsApp messages.

Putting all that together, there’s an opportunity to steal users from WhatsApp, if you’re not tainted by Facebook ownership, if you can plug the functionality gaps, and if—the big if—you can build a critical mass of users to make yourself a viable alternative. 

WhatsApp’s upstart and uber-secure rival Signal—once too specialist to threaten the bigger players, already has better critical functionality: multiple device access and secure device upgrades. But it’s small—and that means WhatsApp users can’t be sure their contacts will have the app installed. Well now Signal has hatched a brilliant plan to resolve this. And it could be a game-changer.

Signal already notifies users when contacts on their phones sign up—it’s intended as a viral prompt to switch chats with those contacts to Signal, although it horrifies the privacy-first brigade. Signal’s newly hatched plan is much smarter than this. Its users can now set up a new group, one with no members, and then create a “group link,” which can be sent to your contacts. When they click the link, they’ll automatically join the group. If they don’t have the app, they’ll see a link to install it on their devices.

As Signal points out, “you can easily share group links to another Signal chat or to other apps.” Let’s be very clear. Their intention is for you to send the link in a WhatsApp group to shift it wholesale to Signal. Anyone who’s been using WhatsApp for some time will have a wide range of groups, some you use and some you don’t. Shifting the ones that you use most regularly to this non-Facebook platform could easily catch-on.

Signal is rapidly improving its group functionality and this new move now makes it easier to set up new groups on Signal than on WhatsApp: “Group links make it easy to get people into your group without having to add them 1-by-1. If you’re trying to organize an event, for example, simply share your group’s link on Twitter or with another Signal chat to quickly get interested people in the group. If you want to move a group chat from another service to Signal, sharing a group link can simplify that.”

Signal groups are much more private and secure than those on WhatsApp—there’s no contest. Signal’s announcement points to when it confirms that “the Signal service has no access to your group memberships, titles, avatars, or attributes, the Signal service can’t access your group links. The information needed to join the group is embedded in the link itself and only a group’s members can access the link, not Signal.”

It's the capturing of this type of metadata centrally that has been a criticism of WhatsApp—it’s unclear what it monitors and captures, but it is clear that while message content is end-to-end encrypted, all of the metadata around who you know and who you message, and when, plus your groups and when you access the service can be monitored. It’s also clear that the recently confirmed plans to further commercialize WhatsApp risks making that worse.

And for many this will be the crux, the reason they move from WhatsApp to a messenger that actually focuses on securing their communications rather than commercializing their usage. With the latest news that WhatsApp’s new, paying business customers can manage your WhatsApp chats with them on Facebook’s backend, where those chats will fuel marketing efforts, will be poorly received.

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By contrast, Signal famously doesn’t even store basic metadata—the platform boasts that it can’t fulfil law enforcement requests for data it doesn’t have. This made it the messenger of choice for protesters this year across the U.S. and in Hong Kong and elsewhere. 

Earlier this month, Signal launched desktop voice and video calls. We have known for some time that WhatsApp has this in the works—those plans appeared to accelerate in light of Signal’s launch. It’s hardly a surprise that WhatsApp monitors Signal’s initiatives. WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton is a major backer of the non-profit foundation behind Signal. And it’s a tweaked version of Signal’s encryption protocol that protects your WhatsApp content.

Signal has tens of millions of users—bit its installs are soaring. It is easy and intuitive to use. In fact, the only drawback is that it doesn’t offer a cloud backup option—security wins out on that one. If you lose your phone, you lose your messages. But given that WhatsApp’s backup option invalidates the end-to-end encryption used to protect your content, you can see why that’s not such a sacrifice. Once WhatsApp fixes this—yet another development in apparently in the works, then the equation may change.

For now, WhatsApp still remains the best go-to messenger. But the situation is changing rapidly. Most security professionals recommend Signal over the alternatives, and with good reason. This is yet another prompt for you to install the app and try it for yourself. Move one of your groups across and see what you think.

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I am the Founder/CEO of Digital Barriers—developing advanced surveillance solutions for defence, national security and counter-terrorism. I write about the intersection

I am the Founder/CEO of Digital Barriers—developing advanced surveillance solutions for defence, national security and counter-terrorism. I write about the intersection of geopolitics and cybersecurity, and analyze breaking security and surveillance stories. Contact me at