Messaging app Signal Hires Former Google Organizer Meredith Whittaker

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Signal hired Meredith Whittaker, a former Google manager who spoke openly about the misdeeds of Big Tech, as its first president, adding to the list of tech critics leading the encrypted messaging app.

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

As chairman, Whittaker will help guide strategy, communications and policy. In an interview, she said she plans to focus on maintaining Signal, which depends on user donations. 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.

The only way to escape technology that makes money with your data is to pay for products that don’t, says Whittaker. An alternative to data collection 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 text, voice and video chat and does not store backups of your data on its servers – a viable alternative to the relentless data collection at the center of tech industry criticism.

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 AI advisor.

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

Whittaker’s arrival comes at an 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 spike in downloads last year amid a privacy backlash after WhatsApp changed its policy on collecting data about user interactions with businesses. 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 who use Signal, the more we can talk on Signal, that’s 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. »

In recent years there has been a greater emphasis on encrypted messaging due to the crackdown on dissidents around the world, 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, whose backups are disabled by default and which started offering end-to-end encrypted backups last year, shares metadata with its parent company Meta.

“Providing secure end-to-end encrypted messaging for the whole 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 immediately 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 people say they have reported companies to data authorities or asked them to delete data. About half of people take smaller-scale actions, like changing their privacy settings,” MacEwan said.

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

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While at Google, Whittaker led product and engineering teams in Google Research and Google Cloud. She emerged as a tech critic when she helped draft a petition in 2018 against Project Maven, Google’s contract to help the Pentagon improve computer vision for drones, which said Google shouldn’t be in the business of war. She later became known for helping organize a company-wide walkout to protest Google’s mishandling of sexual harassment complaints.

While that may seem far removed from Signal’s mission, Whittaker sees a way through in his work to question the business model behind AI.

The dominant trend in AI is building 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 the 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 operational costs, such as experts in maintaining code for iOS, Android, and desktop, as well as registration and hosting. Signal offers users the ability 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.

Telegram, which raised $1.7 billion through a cryptocurrency scheme called Initial Coin Offering, launched a premium subscription this summer, charging users $5.99 per month for access to exclusive features, faster downloads and other benefits. WhatsApp at one point charged some users 99 cents a year, but dropped that after Facebook bought the app for $16 billion.

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

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