Meredith Whittaker, a former Google manager who has spoken out against the negative effects of Big Tech, has been named the first president of Signal, joining a group of tech skeptics already in that position.
Signal stands out in the crowded market for communications apps. In a sector where collecting personal data is the norm, it is dedicated to encryption. It is managed by a nonprofit, yet it competes with WhatsApp and iMessage, which are supported by some of the richest firms in the world, like Apple and Facebook parent company Meta.
Whittaker will support policy, strategy, and communications as president. In an interview, she stated that she intended to concentrate on keeping Signal alive, as it is supported by user donations. Monday at a gathering in Berlin, Signal made her new position public.
Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually on the creation and upkeep of an app like Signal, she claimed.
According to Whittaker, purchasing goods that don’t use your data to earn money is the only way to avoid technology that does. The community of individuals who rely on data gathering must “kick in a little bit” in order for an alternative to data collection to existing.
One of the few tech products driven by outspoken detractors of Big Tech, like the Firefox browser, is Signal. The software provides end-to-end encryption for text, voice, and video chat and doesn’t keep copies of your data on its servers, offering an effective substitute for the unrelenting data collection that has been the target of criticism in the tech sector.
Before she was fired from Google, Whittaker, a member of Signal’s board since 2020, gained notoriety in the tech community for her worker activism. She also gained notoriety for the AI Now Institute, a research center she co-founded to spread awareness of the social implications of artificial intelligence. Whittaker most recently became a senior AI adviser after being selected by Federal Trade Commissioner Lina Khan.
In 2018, Signal expanded thanks to a $50 million interest-free loan from Brian Acton, the co-founder of WhatsApp who has criticized Facebook for privacy issues. Signal was first introduced in 2014 by encryption evangelist Moxie Marlinspike, the former head of security for Twitter.
When Whittaker and Marlinspike were both members of an open-source software group looking into privacy-protecting technology, they first met.
Whittaker’s hiring comes at a crucial time for the business. After about ten years in the position, Marlinspike retired in January, and Acton assumed the role in an interim capacity.
Marlinspike, Acton, and Whittaker make up Signal’s three-person board. A new CEO is still being sought by the business. Whittaker insisted that “the proper person” must be chosen. “We are free to take our time,”
Following WhatsApp’s policy change regarding the collecting of data on user interactions with companies, the app saw a sharp increase in downloads last year during a privacy backlash.
According to smartphone analytics company Sensor Tower, Signal has currently received 140.9 million downloads across the App Store and Google Play, with around 16 percent of its users coming from each of the two countries.
This contrasts with iMessage, which comes pre-installed on iPhones, WhatsApp, which reached 2 billion downloads in 2019, Telegram, which reached 1 billion downloads in 2021, and the number of downloads for Telegram.
Whittaker set Signal’s strategy apart from the quick growth ethos of the majority of Silicon Valley tech businesses. She claimed that the goal of Signal is to build a network effect of encrypted communication, not to increase revenue or attention to advertisements.
“The more Signal users there are, the more Signal users we can talk to, and the more Signal users we can communicate with privately and securely,” she said. “We do have growth goals, but they are motivated by our mission, not by the need to make money.”
In recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis on encrypted messaging as a result of political unrest, worldwide crackdowns on dissidents, and growing awareness of how readily private discussions may be published without consent.
Even competitors like WhatsApp and Telegram, which value privacy, can’t match Signal’s safeguards, according to experts. Unlike Telegram, which employs cloud backups, Signal comes standard with end-to-end encryption.
WhatsApp shares metadata with its parent company Meta even though backups are switched off by default and end-to-end encryption is now a backup option.
The foundation of WhatsApp, according to Carl Woog, a spokesman for the company, is providing safe end-to-end encrypted messaging for the entire world. WhatsApp does not share user contacts, locations, or chats with Meta, he continued. Requests for comment from Telegram and Apple were not immediately fulfilled.
In truth, WhatsApp and many other applications employ Signal Protocol, an open-source technology created by the same team behind Signal, to provide end-to-end encryption.
But few customers prioritize privacy, according to Jamie MacEwan, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis, a company that monitors emerging technologies and media.
“Roughly 10% of respondents claim to have complained about businesses to data regulators or asked them to erase data. According to MacEwan, over half of consumers make smaller-scale changes, such as altering their privacy settings.
Nevertheless, Signal has considerable cultural influence given its small size. The program has gained popularity among journalists and techies and spread to Oath Keepers, Black Lives Matter protestors, athletes, and White House aides. In 2019, it appeared in a cameo on the HBO adolescent drama Euphoria.
Whittaker oversaw the technical and product teams for Google Cloud, Google Research, and Google. She became known as a tech critic after contributing to the creation of a petition in 2018 against Project Maven, Google’s deal with the Pentagon to assist it to improve computer vision for drones. The petition said that Google shouldn’t be engaged in the business of waging war.
Later on, she rose to prominence for her role in planning a company-wide walkout to protest Google’s handling of sexual harassment charges.
Whittaker sees a connection between her efforts to undermine the commercial model for AI and Signal’s objective, despite the fact that it may appear to be unrelated.
The most common AI trend is the development of massive systems that need an excessive amount of data, including personal information about internet users.
The Big Tech companies have a concentrated hold on these resources, according to Whittaker. These AI models “increase the profitability of surveillance data and expand the reach of the corporations that provide it,” according to the authors.
By hiring professionals to update the code for iOS, Android, and PC as well as for registration and hosting, Whittaker is providing more clarity to operational expenditures.
With a monthly donation of $5, $10, or $20, Signal users can earn a variety of badges and present them to friends. Users can also make one-time gifts.
By charging customers $5.99 per month for access to premium features, faster downloads, and other benefits, Telegram, which earned $1.7 billion through a cryptocurrency scheme known as an initial coin offering, began a premium membership this summer. Prior to Facebook’s $16 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, certain customers were once charged 99 cents per year for the service.
But do not anticipate a Signal monthly banner that resembles Wikipedia. We want to spread the word now, but we also don’t want to hammer people over the head with it, Whittaker added.
You join Signal to respond to a group text or to contact someone, not to read Signal’s text about itself, according to the company.