Signal, the open source messaging platform, has become extremely slow and even unresponsive in several parts of India after a sudden rush of new users looking for a more secure alternative to WhatsApp.
The increase in interest in Signal messenger was aided by, though not entirely on account of, a tweet sent by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk at around 6:30 PM on the evening of Thursday, Jan 7.
SIGNAL VS TELEGRAM
Before Jan 7, the number of people searching for the Telegram app on Google was 30 times higher than those searching for Signal.
However, over the last three days, Signal has overtaken Telegram in terms of search interest in most of the English-speaking world — including the US, Canada, UK, Australia and India — as well as in most countries of Western and Nordic Europe, including France, Poland, Austria, Czechia, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.
Interestingly, Telegram still continues to drive more interest in Southern European countries such as Italy and Spain, as well as in Latin America, Africa and Asia ex-India.
Two non-Latin countries in South America — Guyana and Suriname — also saw a higher level of interest for the Signal app compared to Telegram.
India — where WhatsApp is wildly popular — is among countries seeing some of the highest levels of interest and search volumes related to Signal.
While India may be the biggest contributor of new sign-ups for Signal, it is the Chinese city of Hong Kong where Signal accounts for the highest share of search traffic.
On Google’s index, Hong Kong is given an index score of 100, which means that the percentage of Signal-related queries is the highest in that region.
In other words, out of 100 search queries from Hong Kong, ‘x’ are related to Signal, and that ‘x’ (say 5% of the total searches) is higher than in any other part of the world.
Hong Kong is followed by Austria, which has a score of around 69, which means that the interest levels there is about 69% of that seen in Hong Kong over the past 24 hours.
At third place is South Africa with 56, followed by Finland at 43.
India and UAE have search activity scores of 40, by Oman and Turkey at 39. In other words, assuming that 5% of the total queries in Hong Kong are related to Signal, that number would be 2% for India.
Interestingly, even though developed countries like Australia, USA, Canada and the UK also showed a higher level of interest in Signal than Telegram, the overall search activity on such topics is lower than what is seen in Asia.
This could be because such developed countries are less dependent on mobile messengers for communication compared to Asian and African countries, or it could be that people in these countries are not as worried about their governments snooping on their communications as are people in Asia.
The activity level for the US, for example, is only 9, while that for the UK is only 11, compared to 40 for India.
For now, the high levels of interest in places like India seems to have overwhelmed Signal’s infrastructure.
Several users from India reported that the messaging platform, which was working more or less smoothly on Saturday, became sluggish and non-responsive as of Sunday, as interest in the app has skyrocketed. The network was non-responsive in some of our own tests today.
Despite being less feature-rich compared to Telegram, many users seem to prefer Signal for its greater emphasis on privacy, as well as its open source and non-profit credentials.
Being open source means that its underlying code is distributed openly, and anyone can see how the platform works and check for any security or privacy risks.
Both Telegram and WhatsApp is ‘closed’ source, and the code is not open to user scrutiny. CLARIFICATION: At least some of the code used on the Telegram platform is publicly available, particularly that of the client application. There have also been attempts to create an open source server that works on the protocol.
Another advantage of the code being open source is that it is also possible for a new team to continue to develop the Signal platform in case something happens to the team that is currently developing it.
That job is currently being done by non-profit Signal Foundation, founded three years ago by Moxie Marlinspike and WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton.
Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion, and the two co-founders were allowed to remain in charge of WhatsApp and expected to be able to continue to develop the platform as a secure and private communication mode.
However, the co-founders left WhatsApp three years later due to disagreements with Facebook, and Acton set up the Signal Foundation shortly.
Before the latest increase in interest, Signal was used by security and privacy conscious people, such as journalists, activists, politicians and techies, and among its most high-profile advocates is whistleblower Edward Snowden.