Messaging app Signal hires former Google organizer Meredith Whittaker


Signal has employed Meredith Whittaker, a former Google supervisor who has been outspoken concerning the harms of Big Tech, as its first president, including to the roster of tech critics main the encrypted messaging app.

In the crowded marketplace for messaging apps, Signal stands aside. It’s dedicated to encryption in an trade constructed on gathering private knowledge. It’s run by a nonprofit, however competes towards WhatsApp and iMessage, backed by among the richest corporations on the earth, Facebook mum or dad Meta and Apple.

As president, Whittaker will assist information technique, communications and coverage. In an interview, she mentioned she plans to deal with sustaining Signal, which hopes to assist itself with small donations from tens of millions of customers. Signal introduced her new function on Monday at an occasion in Berlin.

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

The solely technique to escape know-how that makes cash off your knowledge is by paying for merchandise that don’t, Whittaker says. An different to knowledge assortment solely exists if the neighborhood of people that depend on it “kick in a little bit,” she mentioned.

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Signal is without doubt one of the few profitable tech merchandise, just like the Firefox browser, led by vociferous critics of Big Tech. The app affords end-to-end encryption on group textual content, voice and video chat, doesn’t gather or retailer delicate info and doesn’t retailer backups of your knowledge on its servers — a viable different to relentless knowledge gathering on the middle of tech trade critiques.

Whittaker, who has been a member of Signal’s board since 2020, rose to prominence in tech circles for employee activism at Google earlier than she was ousted from the corporate — and for the analysis middle she co-founded to boost consciousness concerning the social implications of synthetic intelligence, referred to as AI Now Institute. Most just lately, Federal Trade Commissioner Lina Khan tapped Whittaker as a senior adviser on AI.

Signal was launched in 2014 by encryption evangelist Moxie Marlinspike, the former head of safety for Twitter, and it expanded in 2018 because of a $50 million interest-free mortgage from Brian Acton, the WhatsApp co-founder who has referred to as out Facebook for privateness violations. Whittaker first met Marlinspike after they had been each a part of an open supply software program neighborhood exploring privateness defending tech.

Whittaker’s arrival comes at an inflection point for the corporate. Marlinspike stepped down as CEO in January, after roughly a decade on the helm, and Acton took over in an interim capability. (Signal’s three-person board is Marlinspike, Acton, and Whittaker.) The firm continues to be looking for a brand new chief. “It’s got to be the right person,” mentioned Whittaker. “We have the luxury to take our time.”

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The app skilled an enormous spike in downloads final yr throughout a privateness backlash after WhatsApp changed its policy on knowledge assortment on person interactions with companies. Signal at present has 140.9 million downloads throughout the App Store and Google Play, with India and the United States every having about 16 p.c of its customers, in accordance with Sensor Tower, a cellular analytics firm. That compares with WhatsApp, which handed 2 billion downloads in 2019, Telegram, which handed 1 billion downloads in 2021, and iMessage, which comes pre-installed on iPhones.

Whittaker differentiated Signal’s technique from the quick development mantra of most Silicon Valley tech corporations. Signal just isn’t excited by growing revenue or consideration on adverts, however relatively making a community impact of encrypted communication, she mentioned.

“The more people who use Signal, the more people we can talk to on Signal, that’s more people whose communication is private and encrypted,” she mentioned. “We do have growth goals, but they are driven by our mission, not by a desire for profit.”

There has been a higher deal with encrypted messaging lately due to crackdowns towards dissidents across the globe, political upheaval, and rising consciousness of how simply non-public chats might be shared with out consent. Signal’s protections stand out from even privacy-minded opponents like WhatsApp and Telegram, specialists say. Signal has default end-to-end encryption, not like Telegram, which makes use of cloud backups. WhatsApp, which has backups turned off by default and started providing end-to-end encrypted backups final yr, shares metadata with its mum or dad firm Meta. It additionally shops info equivalent to handle e book and profile images, which law enforcement can acquire with a subpoena.

“Providing secure end-to-end encrypted messaging for the world is the bedrock of WhatsApp,” mentioned WhatsApp spokesperson Carl Woog. He added that WhatsApp doesn’t share person contacts, location or chats with Meta. Apple and Telegram didn’t reply to requests for remark.

In reality, to supply end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp and lots of different providers use Signal Protocol, an open supply know-how developed by the identical group behind Signal.

Regardless, few shoppers put privateness first, mentioned Jamie MacEwan, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis, a agency that analyses new applied sciences and media.

“About 10 percent of people say they have reported companies to data authorities or asked them to delete data. About half of people take smaller-scale action like changing their privacy settings,” MacEwan mentioned.

Signal has cultural clout that’s stunning for its dimension, nonetheless. The app is well-liked with techies and journalists, and crossed over to White House aides, Black Lives Matters protesters, sports activities stars, in addition to Oath Keepers. It had a cameo on the HBO teen drama Euphoria in 2019.

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During her time at Google, Whittaker mentioned she labored in engineering and product management at Measurement Lab, an open supply undertaking to assemble knowledge like broadband pace. She emerged as a tech critic when she helped draft a petition in 2018 towards Project Maven, Google’s contract to assist the Pentagon enhance pc imaginative and prescient for drones, which mentioned that Google shouldn’t be within the enterprise of warfare. She later turned recognized for serving to to arrange a companywide walkout to protest Google’s mishandling of sexual harassment claims.

Although it might appear faraway from Signal’s mission, Whittaker sees a through-line in her work on difficult the enterprise mannequin behind AI.

The dominant pattern in AI is constructing large-scale programs that require inordinate quantities of information, together with private knowledge on web customers. “These are the resources that are concentrated in the hands of the Big Tech companies,” Whittaker defined. These AI fashions are a technique to “expand the profitability of surveillance data and grow the reach of the companies that produce it.”

Whittaker is bringing extra transparency to the prices of operation, equivalent to specialists in sustaining code for iOS, Android and desktop, and registration and internet hosting. Signal affords customers an choice to make one time donations or earn completely different badges for month-to-month donations of $5, $10, or $20 a month, and reward a badge to others. To be sure that a person’s fee info just isn’t linked with their Signal account, Signal makes use of the identical nameless credential system it developed for personal teams.

Telegram, which raised $1.7 billion via a cryptocurrency scheme referred to as an preliminary coin providing, launched a premium subscription this summer season, charging customers $5.99 per thirty days for entry to unique options, sooner downloads, and different perks. WhatsApp at one level charged some customers 99 cents a yr, however dropped that after Facebook purchased the app for $16 billion.

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But don’t count on a Wikipedia-esque month-to-month banner on Signal. “We are definitely hoping to get the word out now and we also don’t want to hit people over the head with it,” Whittaker mentioned. “You get on Signal because you want to answer that group text or you want to contact someone, not because you want to read Signal’s text about itself.”

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