Messaging app Signal hires former Google organizer Meredith Whittaker

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Signal hired Google alumnus Meredith Whittaker administrator who has been outspoken about the misdeeds of Big Tech, as its first president, adding to the list of tech critics leading the encrypted messaging app.

In the crowded messaging app market, Signal stands out. He is committed to ciphering in an industry built on the collection of personal data. It’s run by a nonprofit, but competes with WhatsApp and iMessage, backed by some of the world’s wealthiest companies, Facebook’s parent company Meta and Apple.

As chairman, Whittaker will help guide strategy, communications and policy. In an interview, she said she plans to focus on keeping Signal alive, which hopes to support itself with small donations from millions of users. Signal announced her new role Monday at an event in Berlin.

“It costs tens of millions of dollars a year to develop and maintain an app like Signal,” she said.

According to Whittaker, the only way to escape technology that makes money from your data is to pay for products that don’t. An alternative to collecting data only exists if the community of people who depend on it “step in a bit,” she said.

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Signal is one of the few successful technology products, like the Firefox browser, led by vocal Big Tech critics. The app offers end-to-end encryption on group text, voice and video chat, does not collect or store sensitive information, and does not store backups of your data on its servers – a viable alternative to relentless collection of data at the center of critical technology industry.

Whittaker, who has been a Signal board member since 2020, rose to prominence in tech circles for worker activism at Google before she was ousted from the company — and for the research center that she co-founded to raise awareness of the social implications of artificial intelligence, called AI Now Institute. More recently, Federal Trade Commissioner Lina Khan tapped Whittaker as a senior adviser on AI.

Signal was published in 2014 by encryption evangelist Moxie Marlinspike, the former chief security officer of Twitter, and it grew in 2018 thanks to a $50 million interest-free loan from Brian Acton, the WhatsApp co-founder who sued Facebook for breaching privacy. Whittaker first met Marlinspike when they were both part of an open source software community exploring privacy technologies.

Whittaker’s arrival comes at a inflection point for the company. Marlinspike stepped down as CEO in January, after nearly a decade at the helm, and Acton took over on an interim basis. (Signal’s three-person board is made up of Marlinspike, Acton and Whittaker.) The company is still looking for a new leader. “It has to be the right person,” Whittaker said. “We have the luxury of taking our time.”

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The app saw a massive surge in downloads last year amid a WhatsApp privacy backlash changed its policy on the collection of data on user interactions with companies. Signal currently has 140.9 million downloads on the App Store and Google Play, with India and the United States each accounting for around 16% of its users, according to Sensor Tower, a mobile analytics firm. This compares to WhatsApp, which topped 2 billion downloads in 2019, Telegram, which topped 1 billion downloads in 2021, and iMessage, which comes preinstalled on iPhones.

Whittaker differentiated Signal’s strategy from the rapid growth mantra of most Silicon Valley tech companies. Signal is not interested in increasing profits or attention on advertisements, but rather in creating an encrypted communication network effect, she said.

“The the more people use Signal, the more people we can talk about on Signal, meaning more people whose communication is private and encrypted,” she said. “We have growth goals, but they’re driven by our mission, not a desire for profit.”

There has been a greater emphasis on encrypted messaging in recent years due to the worldwide crackdown on dissidents, political upheaval and growing awareness of how easily private chats can be shared without consent. . Signal’s protections stand out even against privacy-conscious competitors like WhatsApp and Telegram, experts say. Signal has end-to-end encryption by default, unlike Telegram, which uses cloud backups. WhatsApp, which disabled backups by default and started offering end-to-end encrypted backups last year, share metadata with its parent company Meta. It also stores information such as address book and profile pictures, which law enforcement can get with a subpoena.

“Providing secure end-to-end encrypted messaging for the world is the foundation of WhatsApp,” said WhatsApp spokesperson Carl Woog. He added that WhatsApp does not share users’ contacts, location or chats with Meta. Apple and Telegram did not respond to requests for comment.

In fact, to provide end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp and many other services use Signal Protocol, an open-source technology developed by the same group behind Signal.

Regardless, few consumers prioritize privacy, said Jamie MacEwan, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis, a firm that analyzes new technologies and new media.

“About 10% of respondents say they have reported companies to data authorities or asked them to delete data. About half of people take smaller-scale actions, such as changing their privacy settings,” MacEwan said. .

Signal, however, has a surprising cultural weight for its size. The app is popular with techies and journalists, and has grown to White House aides, Black Lives Matters protesters, sports stars, as well as Oath Keepers. He had a cameo on HBO’s teen drama Euphoria in 2019.

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While at Google, Whittaker said she worked in engineering and product direction at Measurement Lab, an open-source project aimed at collecting data such as broadband speed. She became a tech critic when she helped draft a petition in 2018 against Project Maven, Google’s contract to help the Pentagon improve drone computer vision, which said Google shouldn’t go to war. She later became known for helping organize a company-wide strike to protest Google’s mishandling of sexual harassment complaints.

While that may seem far removed from Signal’s mission, Whittaker sees a guideline in his work on questioning the business model behind AI.

The dominant trend in AI is to build large-scale systems that require inordinate amounts of data, including personal data about internet users. “These are the resources that are concentrated in the hands of Big Tech companies,” Whittaker explained. These AI models are a way “to increase the profitability of surveillance data and increase the reach of the companies that produce it.”

Whittaker brings more transparency to operating costs, such as code maintenance experts for iOS, Android, and desktops, as well as registration and hosting. Signal offers users the option to make one-time donations or earn different badges for monthly donations of $5, $10, or $20 per month, and gift a badge to others. To ensure that a user’s payment information is not tied to their Signal account, Signal uses the same anonymous credentials system it developed for private groups.

Telegram, which raised $1.7 billion through a cryptocurrency program called an initial coin offering, launched a premium subscription this summer, charging users $5.99 per month for access to features exclusive features, faster downloads and other benefits. WhatsApp at one time charged some users 99 cents a year, but dropped it after Facebook bought the app for $16 billion.

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But don’t expect a monthly Wikipedia-like banner on Signal. “We’re really hoping to get the word out now and we don’t want to hit people with it either,” Whittaker said. “You’re entering Signal because you want to respond to that group text or want to contact someone, not because you want to read Signal’s text about itself.”

Lance B. Holton