The ‘existential’ danger of tech surveillance, says Signal president

The mysticism that allowed technology companies Earning billions of dollars from surveillance is finally emerging, says the boss of encrypted messaging app Signal.

Meredith Whittaker, who spent years work for google before helping to organize a 2018 staff strike over working conditions, said technology was “valued” and “fetishized” when it started in the industry in 2006.

“The idea that technology was the pinnacle of innovation and progress was quite prevalent in government circles and popular culture,” she said on the sidelines of the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon this week.

But lawmakers and users now relied on the “well-documented damages of allowing a handful of large corporations to have the power to monitor almost every aspect of human life”.

She said people now seek out apps like Signal because they appreciate the “real existential dangers of placing their innermost thoughts, locations, networks of friends in the hands of corporate surveillance actors and of state”.

Ms Whittaker, who established the AI ​​Now Institute at New York University in 2017 and has advised US government regulators, has become a leading critic of business models based on mining personal data to be used for targeted advertising.

She became president of Signal two months ago and is doing all she can to make the app a real alternative to Apple’s WhatsApp and iMessage.

“We want to make sure everyone in the world can pick up their device, quickly open Signal, use it to communicate with anyone else,” she said.

The odds are against her company: WhatsApp, she says, has around 1,000 engineers and several thousand support staff, while her company has a total of 40 people.

The app is run by a non-profit organization, the Signal Foundation, and is only now beginning to ask users for small donations to keep it going.

The company’s David vs. Goliath act was unveiled in January when co-founder Moxie Marlinspike stepped down as chief executive, detailing how difficult it had been to maintain the app.

“I wrote all the Android code, I wrote all the server code, I was the only person on call for the department, I facilitated all product development, and I managed everyone,” he wrote in a blog at the time.

Still, Signal has been downloaded more than 100 million times and, although Ms Whittaker won’t confirm the numbers, reports last year estimated it had 40 million regular users.

And she is undeterred by the task, arguing that having a talented staff helps close the gap with competitors.

“We have a small team that is extremely competent and yet we punch well above our weight,” she said.

Signal has more and more friends in the pro-privacy sector.

Messaging services like Proton, search engine DuckDuckGo, and countless data analytics companies all market themselves as privacy-focused apps.

The idea that technology represented the pinnacle of innovation and progress was quite prevalent in government circles and popular culture.

Meredith Whittaker, President of the Signal Foundation

And Ms Whittaker pointed out that Signal produces a “gold standard” open source encryption protocol that is used by WhatsApp among others.

But the goal is not to imitate other players in the field and push for new and flashier features.

“Our ambitions for growth are not the same as the ambitions of for-profit surveillance companies,” she said.

Rather, the goal was to create a “network effect of encryption.”

This would help ensure that “everyone in the world has the opportunity to communicate privately without being subject to widespread state and corporate surveillance”.

Updated: November 06, 2022, 06:30

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