Encrypted chat stickers and WhatsApp magic: Signal sets its sights on a billion users

Following a $50M donation from Brian Acton, the nonprofit is running the VC-backed startup playbook to spread its message to the masses, and it seems like its working.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Encrypted messaging app Signal is growing at a steady pace despite intense competition from Facebook and others. Wired published a profile of the company today and in it we learn that Signal has been downloaded over 10 million times on Android, with the company saying another 40 percent of its users are on iOS (Signal still refuses to cite specific user numbers, however). This is up significantly from a prior Wired profile in 2016, when the company said they had more than two million users.

The interesting thing about Signal's growth is that the company is developing features to drive adoption just like a VC backed startup would, but it's being run as a nonprofit without any incentive to monetize users or their data. Signal’s founder Moxie Marlinspike says his only goal with the app is to make encrypted communications more accessible and appealing to the mainstream.

Cash injection— Brian Acton, the co-founder of WhatsApp — who left Facebook over the company's shift toward monetization of the app and its users — recently became the executive chairman of the Signal Foundation, the non-profit behind the Signal app and gave the foundation $50 million of his own money to use as funding. Press coverage at the time called this an 'injection' of capital because it was more akin to a donation than a typical venture investment.

Following the said injection, Signal increased its full-time team from three to twenty employees and has begun more frequently releasing new features aimed at capturing less tech-savvy users who would have otherwise opted for a message platform like WhatsApp or iMessage. For example, the company recently added playful chat stickers, bringing at least one part of Signal's arsenal to parity.

Secure stickers — Driving growth through new features isn't as simple as it sounds. When Signal launches new features, like stickers, they still need to maintain strong security measures. Marlinspike told Wired that sticker packs are encrypted with their own keys shared between users whenever someone wants to download a pack. Signal has gone to great lengths to make sure it literally can’t view the stickers you’re sending, let alone your messages.

Matthew Green, a cryptographer at John Hopkins Wired spoke with, said he’s been impressed with the engineering Signal has put into these new features. "If you see Signal as important for secure communication in the future—and possibly you don't see Facebook or WhatsApp as being reliable—then you definitely need Signal to be usable by a larger group of people. That means having these features.”

Small, but mighty? — Still, Signal is a niche app when compared to Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, both of which have more than a billion users. For most people the calculus is easy: Why choose Signal when all your family and friends are already on Messenger, Instagram, or WhatsApp? The answer may be in keeping its focus on privacy as others stumble and regulation looms. Signal’s pure focus on privacy simplifies things for the company, as Facebook and others face increasing pressure from governments to create backdoors in their messaging clients and pressure from shareholders to monetize every piece of their businesses. Instead of trying to integrate with other platforms or monetize through ads, the company is adding features users need, like logins that don't require phone numbers and management of group chats with members that are kept anonymous even from Signal's servers (a feature the company partnered with Microsoft on called "anonymous credentials").

Acton seems to believe lightning can strike twice for him when it comes to messaging. "I’d like for Signal to reach billions of users. I know what it takes to do that. I did that," Acton told Wired. "I’d love to have it happen in the next five years or less."