For a messaging application that’s accustomed to seeing almost a million downloads a day in India, 200,000 daily installations is quite a fall. Reports suggest that chat platform WhatsApp experienced a precipitous 80% decline in downloads between 26 October and 3 November, over the previous nine-day period. It was on 29 October that Whatsapp announced that it had sued Israel’s NSO Group, whose eavesdropping software Pegasus exploited the application’s video calling feature to hack into users’ devices. It was after this revelation that new users apparently began shunning WhatsApp. This is understandable, as people have legitimate concerns about privacy and any breach is bound to shake their confidence.
Interestingly, WhatsApp’s rival Signal recorded major gains in India, though on a much smaller base, as did Telegram, which also saw a sudden spurt in downloads over the period under study. Signal is an open-source network, and is reportedly supported by privacy advocate Edward Snowden. Telegram is seen as relatively safe, too, though technically no app is fully secure in the modern world. End-to-end encryption of message in transit means little if a hacker can mirror a user’s phone screen. The trouble with alternative message apps, though, is that their lack of a large user base in the country—and how useful an app is usually depends on its reach.
Spyware attacks are a worry. It was the services of NSO Group that let Saudi Arabia spy on dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly murdered in Turkey by shadowy agents of Riyadh, for example. But should Indians at large worry about being watched on WhatsApp? That’s not so clear. Of 400 million users, how many would Pegasus snoop on?