Secure communications service Element has seen a fivefold increase in its new users this month, as the company benefits from fears about WhatsApp's controversial new data policy.
The company, which says it is more secure than Signal or Telegram and counts European governments and the German military as users, told Sifted that new users had risen 400% since the Whatsapp announcement this month.
Element’s selling point is that it is not only end-to-end encrypted (like Whatsapp and others) but is built on Matrix, an open-source, decentralised network that anyone can use to build communications channels.
That means that users are never relying on a company, which can potentially change its privacy terms when it likes.
“Whatsapp’s misadventures, going and handing their user data over to Facebook, is the perfect example of the risks of a centralised system,” says Matthew Hodgson, the cofounder of Element.
“Even if you did trust Whatsapp one day, if the next day they sell to Facebook and hand over their data, you’re trapped.”
After Whatsapp’s announcement, rival app Telegram reported a 500% increase in users and Signal saw an 18-fold increase in download numbers, putting it on track to cross 1m new users each day.
Hodgson said that in this “mass migration” from Whatsapp, Element has been one of the “primary refugee destinations for people running away” with a large increase. Across 2020, its users already went from 12m to 27m.
The Element app is built on Matrix, a decentralised network. Element was founded by the same team as Matrix and the app's also the way they generate profits to develop the wider network.
Servers that can be placed anywhere
Just like Signal and Whatsapp, Element uses end-to-end encryption. The difference is that Element users can choose which server stores their data.
By default, the system would choose a server in Cambridge in the UK, but users can use any server — one they own, one they buy from Matrix, or one owned by someone else.
“With Signal, you have no choice over who you trust to run the server — there’s one server, run out of the US,” Hodgson says.
“Signal is obviously very privacy focused but you have no freedom at all, you have to use their server and trust they are the good guys and will continue to be the good guys.”
There’s also the risk that Signal’s server could be compromised, Hodgson adds, “they’re probably the most high value target in the world.”
Governments take up the app
German and French government authorities currently use Element to communicate, as do parts of the US and UK governments. The data for each is stored on servers in the country itself, rather than, as Hodgson puts it, “sending it over to America and hoping for the best.”
Over the course of the pandemic, he says, the Element team realised there’s an entire class of companies who previously hadn’t communicated online, who were now being forced to by remote working.
“It was like a big submerged hidden iceberg of people we had written off as never using an instant messaging tool, they now have no choice — and obviously they can’t use Slack or Teams and hand over the data to another country.”
This includes, by nature, government security agencies, as well as law enforcement, legal teams, biotechs and pharmaceutical companies.
Element has also benefited from a change in the zeitgeist amongst individual consumers, Hodgson explains. “We’re seeing a real shift, people have finally realised the toxicity and the dangers of putting all your data into Facebook.”
Historically, alternatives to Whatsapp hadn’t been as user friendly but that’s changed, Hodgson says, meaning consumers don’t have to choose between privacy and usability.
Last July Element won the world’s largest-ever single contract for a collaborative software service, supplying half a million licences to help communication in the German education system.
The freedom that the Matrix system affords people can come with problems, however.
“If a bunch of Trump supporters get de-platformed by Reddit or Discord and decide to run their own Matrix server, then it’s critical to allow other people in Matrix to have the choice of not seeing that content.”
This is a fundamental problem he says, and one that hasn’t been tackled on systems like the web or email.
“This is something we’re working on very proactively because if we don’t get ahead of it it’s something that could end up exploding in a kind of dark web style mess with the entire spectrum of humanity being on Element.”
Users can choose which channels they hear from, and dial up the volume on those they want and turn it down on those they don’t want to hear from. It’s a tool that gives power to the user in a way the web never has.
“We cannot stop people from people using the technology, just as much as Tim Berners-Lee can’t stop people using the web,” says Hodgson. “But what you can do is to give people the tools to filter out the mad stuff.”