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Interview: Signal’s COO Aruna Harder says that privacy shouldn’t be an optional mode for users
Aruna Harder, Chief Operating Officer of Signal Messenger talks to us about on app’s vision, standing out in the market and handling slowdowns
On Signal, privacy isn’t an ‘optional mode’: Signal’s COO Aruna Harder
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Interview: Signal’s COO Aruna Harder says that privacy shouldn’t be an optional mode for users

On Signal, privacy isn’t an ‘optional mode’: Signal’s COO Aruna Harder
  • After WhatsApp announced its policy updates, many users started looking for secure alternatives like Signal and Telegram.
  • According to Sensor Tower, Signal saw 2.3 million installs in India -- more than 30% of its total new installs.
  • In an exclusive interview with Advertising and Media Insider, Aruna Harder, Chief Operating Officer of Signal Messenger talks to us about app’s vision, standing out in the market and handling slowdowns.
The encrypted messaging app Signal saw a massive boost after rival WhatsApp updated its privacy policy and announced that the user will be expected to share some data including phone numbers and locations with parent company Facebook. Users are set to lose access in February if they don't agree to the changes. WhatsApp faced a lot of backlash from its users over privacy concerns and they have now flocked to alternative apps like Signal and Telegram.

Signal was installed roughly 7.5 million times on the Apple App Store and the Google Play store from January 6 to 10, Sensor Tower, an app-analytics firm, told Insider. That represented a 4,200% increase from the previous week and WhatsApp’s downloads, on the other hand, fell by 39%. Signal saw 2.3 million installs in India -- more than 30% of its total new installs. The second-biggest market was the US, where users installed it about 1 million times.

On the sudden spur in downloads, Aruna Harder, Chief Operating Officer, Signal Messenger said, “We are excited to see so many new people switching to Signal in record numbers. As on Monday, we saw that Signal was the number one downloaded iOS app in over 40 countries and the number one Android app in over 18 countries. Signal’s network is getting wider every day, and the rate of growth is only increasing.”

To allay public fears, on January 12, WhatsApp issued a clarification that its users' privacy won't be affected if they don't use its two optional features. However, Signal’s Harder told us how she believes that privacy shouldn’t be an optional mode.

“We are seeing people switch to Signal in record numbers because companies who sell ads have a harder time focusing on the things that users actually want. With end-to-end encryption, the content of every communication—a text message, a video chat, a voice call, an emoji reaction—is understandable only to the sender and the recipient. If an exchange is intercepted, by a hacker or a government agency, the interceptor sees a nonsensical snarl of letters and numbers. With Signal, there are no ads, no affiliate marketers, and no creepy tracking. Since Signal does not collect user metadata, it cannot read the messages that its users send. Signal does not keep any call logs or data backups,” said Harder, who joined Signal in 2018.

However, Signal is just getting started as Harder expects more users will realise the value of privacy as we move forward in 2021.

She said, “We anticipate high growth in the coming period as more and more people come to terms with their privacy concerns.”

The independent non-profit organisation’s tagline is ‘Say hello to privacy,’ to directly communicate its unique position in the market. Donations help Signal to pay for its development, servers and bandwidth of an app used by many millions around the world.

Striking while the iron was hot, Signal hit where it hurts a lot of platforms in the segment the most -- it offers data privacy and user protection -- crosshairs that WhatsApp is caught up in across the world time and again. On Signal, there are no ads, no affiliate marketers, and no creepy tracking, which Harder thinks is a strong reason for users to stay for the long run.

Adding on how Signal wants to stand for privacy, Harder said, "Unlike other popular messaging apps, Signal does not have access to users’ contacts, social graph, group data, group membership, profile name, profile avatar, location data, gif searches, etc. Signal was founded to fulfill people’s basic expectations that they won’t be tracked by private companies or the government. It uses state-of-the-art end-to-end encryption to keep conversations secure and private. Signal can’t read user messages or listen to calls, and no one else can either. Choosing Signal is choosing privacy. We want you to own your own data. With end-to-end encryption, the content of every communication—a text message, a video chat, a voice call, an emoji reaction—is understandable only to the sender and the recipient. If an exchange is intercepted, by a hacker or a government agency, the interceptor sees a nonsensical snarl of letters and numbers.”

The silicon-valley based app is also launching new features in India, which is currently its largest market. It will be rolling out chat wallpapers, animated stickers, media auto-download settings and full-screen profile photos.

Managing the sudden surge of users

Signal was launched in 2013 by Moxie Marlinspike and Brian Acton, who also co-founded WhatsApp before selling it to Facebook.

However, users started downloading Signal in massive numbers as WhatsApp updated its privacy policy and after Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who is also the world’s richest man, asked his followers to join the messaging service. Soon, the number of downloads skyrocketed and its registration system crashed. Some new users reported slowdowns and other issues with the app.

“We have been scaling Signal to handle the incredible growth, and are working hard to ship the things people are asking for,” said Harder.

Vision for the app

There are a few other platforms in the market that are doing well as a direct result of the WhatsApp policy update. However, Harder’s vision is to be a secure and self-sustaining alternative to other messaging platforms.

“Our vision is to provide users with a simple yet powerful and secure messaging alternative. Like I mentioned, privacy isn’t an optional mode — it’s just the way Signal works. Signal has always been a collaborative project with a strong community, and it will continue to learn from its community and experiment together. The core values of Signal are to protect and extend free expression and to create a safe and secure digital environment for everyone. Ultimately, our goal is to make the Signal Foundation financially self-sustaining. The founders believe there is an opportunity to act in the public interest and make a meaningful contribution to society. We aim to do this by building sustainable technology that respects its users and does not rely on the commoditization of personal data,” Harder said, signing off.