2021 retrospective: Messaging, calling, and communicating

December 28, 2021 / Alex LintonPrivacy, Private messaging

Every single day people rely on messaging apps to find new friends, do business, and keep up with their families. They’re a basic part of a phone’s functionality. Everyone with a smartphone has a messaging app installed, whether it’s WhatsApp, Signal, Messenger, or Session. 

As people come to rely on technology more and more for their day-to-day communication, it is increasingly important to keep track of the activity and trends in the messaging space. As 2021 comes to a close, there is no better time to look back at what happened — it’s been a big year. 2021 saw some of the biggest players in the messaging game—especially WhatsApp—under serious pressure as people started calling out their questionable conduct

As has been the case for a few years now, messaging apps focused on privacy and encryption this year — and regulators and law enforcement agencies continued trying to squash private communications. As for what’s new, this year saw the beginning of a new wave of cryptocurrency implementations arriving in some of the most popular messaging apps.  

Putting privacy first

Privacy is an important part of private messaging — it’s right there in the name, after all. It isn’t really private messaging if anyone that’s interested can snoop on your messages, right?

This year started off with a whoopsie when WhatsApp announced they would be changing their privacy policy. The changes were met with uproar when people realised the new policy was going to open a giant can of privacy worms. WhatsApp has been walking a tightrope in terms of their privacy optics ever since they were acquired by Facebook — but this year it really boiled over. 

As outraged users flocked away from WhatsApp, they found themselves stumbling into privacy-focused alternatives like Signal and Session. 

Out of nowhere, everyone who was anyone was talking about private messengers. In the wake of Elon Musk’s tweet endorsing Signal, the app had so many people on-boarding that it crashed their two-step verification servers. Session also benefited from the increase in privacy awareness — with a 500% increase in users between January and May this year. 

Privacy is an issue of growing concern — and everybody can expect and appreciate the need for privacy in our personal and professional conversations.

The war on encryption

Unfortunately it’s not all good news on the privacy front — even though more and more people are picking up truly private messaging apps, they are also attracting more scrutiny from governments and regulators. 

Policymakers around the world continued their adversarial approach to privacy and encryption, with the Australian government leading the way with the introduction of the Identify and Disrupt Bill. The law attracted widespread criticism from digital rights groups and activists who were concerned about the consequences for people’s right to privacy. 

Just a couple of years ago leaders from the US, United Kingdom, and Australia issued a letter imploring Facebook to ditch end-to-end encryption — of course, Facebook (and others) said no, and now regulators are doing everything they can to undermine encryption. 

With that in mind, it’s clear there is a silent war being fought over the right to encrypt. It’s important that we don’t leave our digital rights up to chance — which is why messengers like Session are so important in the current regulatory climate. 

Through a combination of open-source code, decentralisation, no-phone numbers, and encryption, Session is hardened not only against technical adversaries, but regulatory adversaries. This year we saw that no matter how much transparency and integrity a company might have, when push comes to shove any data they have can be shaken out by the powers that be — and even something as simple as an IP address could compromise someone. That’s why Session goes to prevent metadata collection. As private messaging continues to grow and evolve as an industry, it is important for apps and services in the space to ensure they are taking every possible precaution to protect and uphold the rights of the people using their services — and these days that doesn’t just mean slapping end-to-end encryption into the app and calling it a day. 

The crypto craze

2021’s biggest crypto wave was all about NFTs — they appeared everywhere from Saturday Night Live to Spotify wrapped. But in the background, there was also another rumbling in the crypto world — messaging implementations. 

The success of payment integration in apps like WeChat has made lots of messaging apps consider whether having a transfer-of-value in their app would be beneficial. On the surface of things, cryptocurrencies are a match made in heaven for private messaging apps — they provide a great private and secure payment infrastructure which can be utilised by messaging apps. However, harnessing a blockchain could come with some downsides.

The most notable story in this space was Signal’s plan to integrate MobileCoin payments into the app. Their announcement was met with mixed responses, with some people airing concerns over the trustworthiness of the MobileCoin (and the legitimacy of crypto in general), while others were excited to see Signal innovating in the space and striving to offer a privacy-preserving payment system for their users. Some apps, like Status, even prioritise payments — with messaging as an additional feature.

 WhatsApp also joined in on the hype, launching a cryptocurrency payments pilot late in the year.

Of course, Session is already leveraging blockchain technology, but it also has the potential to integrate private, secure, and instant payments using OXEN in the future.  

To bigger and better things

Private messaging is an exciting space full of innovation and progress. Private messaging apps have become a key pillar in the world of digital rights — an essential service for protecting and upholding privacy, free speech, and enabling the work of journalists, activists, and whistleblowers. 

Being such a fast-moving industry, it’s important for the hard-working teams in the industry to continue striving to stay ahead of the game and make sure your communications stay safe, secure, and private long into the future. 

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