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Encrypted app Signal just hired one of Big Tech’s sharpest critics

Meredith Whittaker, the former Google manager, is Signal’s first president. She is out to convince users to pay for the free app.

Meredith Whittaker, the former Google manager who is now president at Signal. (Florian Hetz for The Washington Post)

Signal has hired Meredith Whittaker, a former Google manager who has been outspoken about the harms of Big Tech, as its first president, adding to the roster of tech critics leading the encrypted messaging app.

In the crowded market for messaging apps, Signal stands apart. It’s committed to encryption in an industry built on collecting personal data. It’s run by a nonprofit but competes against WhatsApp and iMessage, backed by some of the richest companies in the world, Facebook parent Meta and Apple.

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

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

The only way to escape technology that makes money off your data is by paying for products that don’t, Whittaker says. An alternative to data collection only exists if the community of people who rely on it “kick in a little bit,” she said.

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Signal is one of the few successful tech products, like the Firefox browser, led by vociferous critics of Big Tech. The app offers end-to-end encryption on 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 the relentless data gathering at the center of tech industry critiques.

Whittaker, who has been a member of Signal’s board since 2020, rose to prominence in tech circles for worker activism at Google before she was ousted from the company — and for the research center she co-founded to raise awareness about the social implications of artificial intelligence, called the AI Now Institute. Most recently, Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan tapped Whittaker as a senior adviser on AI.

Signal was released in 2014 by encryption evangelist Moxie Marlinspike, the former head of security for Twitter, and it expanded in 2018 thanks to a $50 million interest-free loan from Brian Acton, the WhatsApp co-founder who has called out Facebook for privacy violations. Whittaker first met Marlinspike when they were both part of an open-source software community exploring privacy protecting tech.

Whittaker’s arrival comes at an inflection point for the company. Marlinspike stepped down as CEO in January, after roughly 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 searching for a new chief. “It’s got to be the right person,” said Whittaker. “We have the luxury to take our time.”

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The app experienced a massive spike in downloads last year during a privacy backlash after WhatsApp changed its policy on data collection on user interactions with businesses. Signal currently has 140.9 million downloads across the App Store and Google Play, with India and the United States each having about 16 percent of its users, according to Sensor Tower, a mobile analytics company. In comparison, WhatsApp passed 2 billion downloads in 2019, Telegram passed 1 billion downloads in 2021, and iMessage comes pre-installed on iPhones.

Whittaker differentiated Signal’s strategy from the fast-growth mantra of most Silicon Valley tech companies. Signal is not interested in increasing profit or attention on ads, but rather creating a network effect of encrypted communication, she said.

“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 said. “We do have growth goals, but they are driven by our mission, not by a desire for profit.”

There has been a greater focus on encrypted messaging in recent years because of crackdowns against dissidents around the globe, political upheaval and growing awareness of how easily private chats can be shared without consent. Signal’s protections stand out from even privacy-minded competitors such as WhatsApp and Telegram, experts say. Signal has default end-to-end encryption, unlike Telegram, which uses cloud backups. WhatsApp, which has backups turned off by default and began 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 photos, which law enforcement can obtain with a subpoena.

“Providing secure end-to-end encrypted messaging for the world is the bedrock of WhatsApp,” said WhatsApp spokesperson Carl Woog. He added that WhatsApp does not share user contacts, location 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 the Signal Protocol, an open-source technology developed by the same group behind Signal.

Regardless, few consumers put privacy first, said Jamie MacEwan, senior media analyst at Enders Analysis, a firm that analyses new technologies 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 said.

Signal has cultural clout that is surprising for its size, however. The app is popular with techies and journalists, and crossed over to White House aides, Black Lives Matters protesters, sports stars, as well as members of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing extremist group. It had a cameo on the HBO teen drama “Euphoria” in 2019.

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During her time at Google, Whittaker said, she worked in engineering and product leadership at Measurement Lab, an open-source project to gather 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, that said Google should not be in the business of war. She later became known for helping to organize a companywide walkout to protest Google’s mishandling of sexual harassment claims.

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

The dominant trend in AI is building large-scale systems that require inordinate amounts of data, including personal data on internet users. “These are the resources that are concentrated in the hands of the Big Tech companies,” Whittaker explained. These AI models are a way to “expand the profitability of surveillance data and grow the reach of the companies that produce it.”

Whittaker is bringing more transparency to the costs of operation, such as experts in maintaining code for iOS, Android and desktop, and registration and hosting. Signal offers users an option to make one-time donations or earn different badges for monthly donations of $5, $10 or $20 a month, and gift a badge to others. To ensure that a user’s payment information is not linked with their Signal account, Signal uses the same anonymous credential system it developed for private groups.

Telegram, which raised $1.7 billion through a cryptocurrency scheme called an initial coin offering, launched a premium subscription in June, charging users $5.99 per month for access to exclusive features, faster downloads and other perks. WhatsApp at one point charged some users 99 cents a year, but dropped that after Facebook bought the app for $16 billion.

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But don’t expect a Wikipedia-esque monthly 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 said. “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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