One week after Trump’s unlikely U.S. election victory, and it’s not much clearer what lies in store for the technology industry under a Trump presidency, though Apple’s stock did fall earlier this week after a warning that iPhone sales could suffer if the president-elect follows through on threats to impose new tariffs on China.
More broadly, the outcome of last week’s election led to some concerns about what a Trump administration would mean for U.S. surveillance and encryption policy. Indeed, Trump had made a number of statements against the technology industry during his presidential campaign — he even called for the public to boycott Apple products over the company’s refusal to help the FBI unlock an iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino killers. And concerns seem to be filtering down into the public’s consciousness, as reports emerge that a number of online privacy-focused companies have seen a surge in downloads and signups in the wake of the election.
Last week, encrypted email service ProtonMail said that its signups doubled after the Trump win. “Given Trump’s rhetoric against journalists, political enemies, immigrants, and Muslims, there is concern that Trump could use the new tools at his disposal to target certain groups,” the company said. “As the NSA currently operates completely out of the public eye with very little legal oversight, all of this could be done in secret.”
The same day, App Annie data suggested that encrypted messaging App Signal had grown in popularity, too. On election day, Signal was ranked 98th in the Social Networking category on the U.S. App Store, but the day after, it was sitting at 45th, before hitting the giddy heights of 34th by that Thursday. Similarly, the Android incarnation rose from 65th in the Communications category on election day to 33rd two days later.
Curious to learn how much of a spike, if any, other online privacy tools saw in the wake of the U.S. election, we asked a handful of prominent virtual private network (VPN) operators whether they’d seen any rise in downloads following the election results.
Canada-headquartered TunnelBear said that it saw a roughly “25-40 percent increase in new downloads” emanating from the U.S. in the days after the election. Similarly, AnchorFree, creators of popular VPN service Hotspot Shield, said that it saw a 33 percent increase in downloads. And KeepSolid, makers of VPN Unlimited, reported a 32 percent increase in downloads between November 8 and November 10, compared to the average over the previous 30 days.
But two companies we questioned said they saw no discernible uptick in activity following Trump’s election win. Internet browser company Opera, which expanded into the VPN fray following its acquisition of SurfEasy last year, said it saw no surge in usage or downloads. And VPN maker CyberGhost also saw nothing particularly noteworthy in its numbers post-election. “There was zero impact on VPN usage or downloads, either in the U.S. or outside the U.S.,” said CyberGhost CEO Robert Knapp.
Knapp noted that other key political events have garnered up to 40 times more usage and downloads, and cited the recent social media blackout in Turkey, while noting that major hacks, censorship, and Snowden-style leaks also lead to peaks. But he saw no such surge result from Trump becoming president-elect.
“My hypothesis is this — usage of encryption technology is on the rise because awareness rises,” said Knapp. “We always see peaks if stuff happens, and these peaks help to increase awareness as well as the ongoing debate about how society should deal with freedom and security online. But a ‘peak’ needs to have a real impact that people feel in their lives. Any other bad news just has a long-term effect in terms of raising awareness.”
It’s interesting to note that the three VPN companies that saw a spike in downloads are based in North America, while the two that saw nothing are based in Europe. That could mean that some VPN brands are bigger in the U.S. and therefore feature more prominently in search engines, but without access to full data sets stretching over long periods of time, it’s difficult to jump to too many conclusions about what impact Trump is having on people’s concerns about personal privacy. It is fair to conclude that some people did put some spade-work into becoming more privacy-prepared, with companies across the VPN and encrypted messaging realm reporting a rise in downloads and signups.
These gains may be short-lived, but it still indicates that people are concerned about their online privacy under a Trump presidency. And, if nothing else, it feeds into the long-tail “raising awareness” factor outlined by CyberGhost.