Messaging app Signal hires former Google organizer Meredith Whittaker


Signal hires former Google firm Meredith Whittaker manager As its first president, he has been outspoken about the dangers of Big Tech, joining the list of tech critics leading encrypted messaging apps.

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

As president, Whitaker will help guide strategy, communications and policy. In an interview, she said she plans to focus on maintaining Signal, hoping to support herself with small donations from millions of users. Signal announced her new role at an event in Berlin on Monday.

“Developing and maintaining an application like Signal costs tens of millions of dollars a year,” she said.

The only way to escape technologies that make money off your data is to buy products that don’t make money, Whittaker said. Alternatives to data collection will only exist if communities that rely on data collection “start a little,” she said.

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Signal is one of the few successful tech products, such as the Firefox browser, led by fierce critics of Big Tech. The app offers end-to-end encryption for group text, voice, and video chats, doesn’t collect or store sensitive information, and doesn’t store backups of your data on its servers – a viable option for constant data collection at the heart of the tech industry Alternative Criticism.

Whittaker, who has been on Signal’s board since 2020, made a name for herself in the tech world for her worker activism at Google before being ousted by the company — a research center she co-founded aimed at raising awareness of artificial intelligence. Awareness of social impact. Intelligence, called AI Now Institute. Recently, Federal Trade Commissioner Lina Khan appointed Whittaker as a senior advisor on AI.

Signal was launched in 2014 by former Twitter security chief Moxie Marlinspike and expanded in 2018 thanks to a $50 million interest-free loan from WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, who has accused Facebook of violating privacy. Whittaker first encountered By the time of Marlinspike, they were all part of the open-source software community exploring privacy-preserving technologies.

Whittaker’s arrival comes at a turning point for the company. Marlinspike stepped down as CEO in January after about a decade at the helm, and Acton took over in an interim capacity. (Signal’s three-person board is Marlinspike, Acton and Whittaker.) The company is still looking for a new director. “It has to be the right person,” Whitaker said. “We are fortunate to spend our time.”

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Downloads of the app soared last year after WhatsApp changed its data collection policy on user interactions with businesses. Signal currently has 140.9 million downloads on the App Store and Google Play, with India and the U.S. each accounting for about 16 percent of users, according to mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower. That compares to WhatsApp with over 2 billion downloads in 2019, Telegram with over 1 billion downloads in 2021, and iMessage preinstalled on iPhones.

Whittaker distinguishes Signal’s strategy from the fast-growing mantra of most Silicon Valley tech companies. Signal is not interested in increasing ad profits or attention, she said, but rather creating the network effect of encrypted communications.

“This The more people that use Signal, the more people we can talk to on Signal, and that means more people’s communications are private and encrypted,” she said. “We do have growth goals, but they are driven by our driven by a mission, not a thirst for profit. “

Encrypted messaging has received increased attention in recent years due to a global crackdown on dissidents, political unrest and a growing awareness of how easy it is to share private chats without consent. Experts say Signal’s protections stand out even against privacy-focused competitors like WhatsApp and Telegram. Unlike Telegram, which uses cloud backup, Signal has end-to-end encryption by default. WhatsApp, which turns off backups by default and began offering end-to-end encrypted backups last year, shares metadata with parent company Meta. It also stores information such as address books and profile photos, which law enforcement can obtain through subpoenas.

“Providing the world with secure end-to-end encrypted messaging is the cornerstone of WhatsApp,” said WhatsApp spokesman Carl Woog. He added that WhatsApp does not share user contacts, locations 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.

In any case, few consumers put privacy first, said Jamie MacEwan, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis, a firm that analyzes new technologies and media.

“About 10 percent said they had reported the company to data authorities or asked them to delete their data. About half would take smaller action, such as changing their privacy settings,” MacEwan said.

However, Signal’s cultural reach is surprising. The app was popular with techies and journalists, and was embraced by White House aides, Black Lives Matter protesters, sports stars, and oath has a cameo Euphoria, the 2019 HBO teen drama.

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

While this may seem unrelated to Signal’s mission, Whittaker sees a pervasive challenge to the business model behind AI in her work.

The main trend in artificial intelligence is to build large systems that require a lot of data, including the personal data of internet users. “These resources are concentrated in the hands of big tech companies,” Whitaker explained. These AI models are a way of “expanding the profitability of monitoring data and expanding the influence of the companies that produce it.”

Whittaker brings greater transparency to operational costs, such as maintaining iOS, Android and desktop code, as well as experts in registration and hosting. Signal offers users the option to make a one-time donation or make a monthly donation of $5, $10 or $20 to earn different badges and give them away to others. To ensure that users’ payment information is not linked to their Signal accounts, Signal uses the same anonymous credential system it developed for private parties.

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 a month for exclusive features, faster downloads and other perks. WhatsApp once charged some users 99 cents a year, but that fell after Facebook bought the app for $16 billion.

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But don’t expect a Wikipedia-style monthly banner on Signal. “We definitely want to get the message out now, and we don’t want to hit people in the head with it,” Whittaker said. “You go to Signal because you want to reply to that mass text or you want to contact someone, not because you want to read it. Signal’s text messages about itself.”

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