Messaging app Signal hires former Google entrepreneur Meredith Whitaker

Suspension

Signal hired Meredith Whitaker, the former Google company Management Who has been outspoken about the harms of Big Tech, as its first president, added to the list of tech critics driving the encrypted messaging app.

In the crowded market of messaging apps, Signal stands apart. It’s committed to encryption in an industry built on personal data collection. It’s run by a non-profit organization, but it rivals WhatsApp and iMessage, backed by some of the world’s richest companies, the parent company of Facebook and Apple’s Meta.

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

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

The only way to escape technology that makes money from your data is to pay for products that don’t, Whitaker says. The alternative to data collection, she said, only exists if the “community of people who depend on it starts a little bit”.

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Signal is one of the few successful tech products, like Firefox, led by vociferous critics from major tech companies. The app offers end-to-end encryption for 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 data collection at the center of the tech industry’s criticism.

Whitaker, who has been on Signal’s board since 2020, rose to prominence in the tech circles of labor activism at Google before she was fired from the company — and for the think tank she co-founded to raise awareness of the social implications of artificiality. Intelligence, called AI Now Institute. Recently, Federal Trade Commissioner Lina Khan appointed Whitaker as a senior advisor on artificial intelligence.

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Signal was released in 2014 by crypto missionary Moxie Marlinspike, former head of Twitter security, expanded in 2018 thanks to a 50 million dollars An interest-free loan from Brian Acton, the co-founder of WhatsApp who has called Facebook for privacy violations. Whitaker first met Marlinspike when they were part of an open source software community exploring privacy protection technology.

The arrival of Whitaker comes in Deviation point for the sake of the company. Marlinspike resigned as CEO in January, after nearly a decade in office, and Acton took over on an interim basis. (Signal’s three-person board of directors is Marlinspike, Acton, and Whittaker.) The company is still looking for a new chairman. “He has to be the right person,” Whitaker said. “We have the luxury to take our time.”

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The app saw a huge rise in downloads last year during the privacy backlash after WhatsApp changed its policy collect data about user interactions with companies. Signal currently has 140.9 million downloads across the App Store and Google Play, with India and the United States both accounting for about 16 percent of its users, according to Sensor Tower, a mobile analytics firm. This compares to WhatsApp, which crossed 2 billion downloads in 2019, Telegram, which crossed 1 billion downloads in 2021, and iMessage, which comes pre-installed on iPhones.

Whitaker distinguished Signal’s strategy from the rapid growth slogan of most technology companies in Silicon Valley. She said that Signal is not interested in increasing profit or interest in advertising, but rather in creating a network effect for encrypted communications.

“The The more people using Signal, and the more people we can talk to on Signal, the more people their communications will be private and encrypted.” “We have goals for growth, but they are driven by our mission, not a desire to profit.”

There has been a greater focus on encrypted messaging in recent years due to campaigns against opponents around the world, political turmoil, and a growing awareness of how easy it is to share private chats without consent. Experts say Signal’s protection stands out even from privacy-conscious competitors like WhatsApp and Telegram. Signal has default end-to-end encryption, unlike Telegram, which uses cloud backups. WhatsApp, which turned off backups by default and started offering end-to-end encrypted backups last year, Shares metadata With its parent company Meta. It also stores information such as address book and profile pictures, which law enforcement It can be obtained through a subpoena.

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“Providing secure, end-to-end encrypted messaging to the world is the cornerstone of WhatsApp,” said WhatsApp spokesperson Carl Woog. He added that WhatsApp does not share a user’s contacts, location, or conversations 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 the Signal protocol, an open source technology developed by the same group behind Signal.

Regardless, few consumers put privacy first, said Jamie McEwan, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis, a company that analyzes new technologies and media.

About 10 percent of people say they have reported companies to data authorities or have asked them to delete data. About half of people take action on a smaller scale, such as changing their privacy settings, McEwan said.

However, Signal has a cultural clout that is surprising for its size. The app is popular with techies and journalists, go to White House aides, Black Lives Matters protesters, sports stars, as well as Section guards. he had a barrier In the HBO teen drama Euphoria in 2019.

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During her time at Google, Whitaker said she worked in engineering and product leadership at Measurement Lab, an open source project to collect data such as broadband speed. 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 famous for helping to organize a company-wide strike to protest Google’s mishandling of sexual harassment allegations.

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Although it may seem omitted from Signal’s mission, Whitaker sees a direct line in her work on challenging the business model behind AI.

The trend in artificial intelligence is to build large-scale systems that require huge amounts of data, including personal data on Internet users. “These are the resources that are concentrated in the hands of the big tech companies,” Whitaker explained. These AI models are a way to “expand the profitability of monitoring data and expand the reach of the companies that produce it.”

Whitaker brings more transparency to operating costs, such as experts in maintaining code for iOS, Android, desktop, registration, and hosting. Signal gives 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 linked to their Signal account, Signal uses the same anonymous credential system that it has developed for private groups.

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

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But don’t expect a monthly banner from Wikipedia on Signal. “We certainly hope to get the word out now and we also don’t want to hit people in the head,” Whitaker said. “You get Signal because you want to reply to that group text or you want to call someone, not because you want to read the Signal text about itself.”

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