The mysticism that has allowed tech companies to make billions of dollars from surveillance is finally being cleared up, said the head of encrypted messaging app Signal.
Meredith Whittaker, who worked for Google for years before helping organize an employee strike over working conditions in 2018, said technology was “upgraded” and “fetishized” when she entered the industry in 2006.
“The idea that technology is at the forefront of innovation and progress has been pretty pervasive in government circles and popular culture,” she said on the sidelines of the tech conference Web Summit in Lisbon this week.
But lawmakers and users now reckoned with the “well-documented harm of giving a handful of big corporations the power to monitor almost every aspect of human life.”
She said people are now looking to apps like Signal because they appreciate the “real existential dangers of putting their most intimate thoughts, their locations, their networks of friends in the hands of corporate and government surveillance actors.”
Ms. Whittaker, who founded the AI Now Institute at New York University in 2017 and has advised US government regulators, has become a prominent critic of business models based on the extraction of personal data for use in targeted advertising.
She became President of Signal two months ago and is committed to making the app a viable alternative to WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage.
“We want to make sure everyone in the world can pick up their device, quickly open Signal, and use it to communicate with everyone else,” she said.
The odds are against her company: WhatsApp, she says, has about 1,000 engineers and many thousands of support staff, while her company has 40 employees overall.
The app is managed by a non-profit organization, the Signal Foundation, and asks users for small donations to keep it running.
The company’s David vs. Goliath act was exposed in January when co-founder Moxie Marlinspike left his post as chief executive and detailed how difficult it had been to keep the app running.
“I wrote all the Android code, wrote all the server code, was the only person on-call for the service, facilitated all product development, and managed everyone,” he wrote in a blog at the time.
Still, Signal has been downloaded more than 100 million times, and while Ms Whittaker won’t confirm the numbers, it was reportedly appreciated by 40 million regular users last year.
And she is not intimidated by the task, arguing that talented employees help close the gap with competitors.
“We have a small team that is extremely competent, and yet we’re hitting way above our weight,” she said.
Signal has a growing number of friends in the pro-privacy sector.
Email services like Proton, search engine DuckDuckGo, and countless data analytics companies all market themselves as privacy-focused apps.
And Ms. Whittaker stressed that Signal produces a “gold standard” open-source encryption protocol used by WhatsApp, among others.
But the goal isn’t to emulate the other players on the field and push for ever flashier new features.
“Our growth ambitions are not of the same nature as the ambitions of for-profit surveillance companies,” she said.
Rather, it was about creating a “network effect of encryption”.
That would help ensure that “everyone in the world has the ability to actually communicate privately without being subject to pervasive government and corporate surveillance.”
Updated November 06, 2022 at 6:30 am