There have been a lot of conversations here on “Marketplace Tech” about digital privacy. More folks are paying attention to things like encryption and the security of their messaging apps.
Signal consistently ranks as one of the more popular choices for privacy advocates, and the app is increasingly being used by people beyond the cybersecurity crowd.
Signal’s staff is small compared to those of messaging apps like Telegram, WhatsApp or iMessage — which comes pre-installed in iPhones — but it’s growing.
Former Google researcher and digital privacy advocate Meredith Whittaker just signed on as Signal’s new president and today is her first day on the job.
She’s been on Signal’s board since 2020 and says she plans to continue the company’s focus on encryption.
Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams recently spoke with Whittaker about the future of the company, how she’d like to grow Signal without monetizing their users’ data and digital privacy issues at large.
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Meredith Whittaker: My focus overall is going to be on guiding strategy. Where are we going? How are we getting there? I’m also thinking a lot about building a model for long-term sustainability. Signal doesn’t participate in the surveillance business model that underwrites so much of the tech industry. So how do we continue building high-availability software without having that source of financing?
Kimberly Adams: How does the way that Signal handles communications differ from other apps?
Whittaker: Well, you know, it really depends on the app we’re talking about. But unlike most other apps, Signal collects no data about you. We don’t know anything about you, we don’t know the contents of your messages, we don’t know who you are, we don’t know who you’re talking to, we don’t know who’s in the group texts that you’re sending your memes to, we don’t know anything. So if we’re asked for data, we can provide almost nothing so that you can have, you know, truly ephemeral and intimate conversations with people without a fear that that will show up in a breach or be handed over in a subpoena or what have you.
Adams: One of the more recent changes at Signal is to start asking for donations. I can even see some echoes of the public radio model in there with badges in exchange for donations, language like “sustainers. This is quite different than the way that other messaging apps generate revenue. Can you talk about why Signal is going that direction right now?
Whittaker: Absolutely. One thing that isn’t always obvious is that developing high- availability software is extremely expensive. It costs tens of millions of dollars a year to develop and maintain Signal. And that’s a very lean budget, given what we’re doing, given our reach and availability. So what we’re looking at right now is the small donor model, in particular, because it’s a model that is really difficult to suddenly disrupt. If we have millions of people supporting Signal, kicking in a little bit every month, it’s very unlikely that, say, the head can be cut off that model. We think among the many millions of people who rely on Signal, there are enough of them that will be eager to kick in a little bit, that we can make this work.
Adams: But do you have tote bags?
Whittaker: Not yet, but I am going to add it to the list of ideas and incentives. We do have badges.
Adams: Signal is free. But a lot of the services that help people reclaim some amount of privacy online are not. I’m thinking virtual private networks, services that scrub your info from data brokers, private email. Is privacy destined to become something only accessible to folks who can afford it?
Whittaker: I sincerely hope not. You know, in Signal’s case, if we charged for Signal, we would basically be saying only people who pay for a Signal are people you’re able to communicate with. And of course, people’s relationships, people’s workplaces, people’s friendships don’t work that way. So we are not looking to charge for the service. We want to ensure that as many people as possible, globally, can use Signal and rely on Signal. And the more people using it and relying on it, the more protected everyone is.
Adams: You’ve worked in the past with the federal government on issues related to artificial intelligence, most recently as the senior adviser on artificial intelligence under Chair Lina Khan’s Federal Trade Commission. How do you see your work with the federal government informing your new role at signal?
Whittaker: Well, I absolutely think that just having a view from the inside, understanding how a major government agency is thinking about questions of privacy and data and the business model fueling tech is extremely helpful in informing how I think about the direction of Signal. But I would say more broadly, my work on AI for the past half decade is really closely linked to the concerns that are animating Signal. I have referred to artificial intelligence as a surveillance derivative because creating large-scale AI requires significant data and significant computational infrastructure. And these are resources that are concentrated in the hands of the big tech companies that rose to prominence on the backs of the surveillance business model.
Adams: You know, it was a running joke here in Washington, D.C., after the last presidential election that you could tell who is being vetted for the new administration by all the new users who are popping up on Signal. There’s this sense that right now it’s an app for techies and journalists and, frankly, people who want to hide their communications, not so much your grandma or your mom. Are you good with that label? And are you working to change it?
Whittaker: Well, I think that is less and less true. Our user growth has been increasing steadily. We are used by many millions of people. And, you know, we have a real commitment to building an app that is pleasant and easy to use and intuitive so that when your mom or your grandma or your dad or your husband gets on the app, they can easily use it to do what they want to do, which is communicate with someone, which is to share a photo or a meme, so that it doesn’t require an ideological commitment to privacy to get on the app, to do your communications outside of the pervasive surveillance that is part of communicating digitally with most services and products. And that that can feel very intuitive to people whether or not they have thought through all the good reasons that private, ephemeral, intimate communication should be protected on the surface like Signal.
Adams: How do you balance privacy and tech in your own life, knowing all the things you know?
Whittaker: Well, you know, I do my best. I use Signal with almost everyone I talked to, and if they’re not using Signal, I send them an invitation. I try to keep personal information off the internet insofar as I can. But I’m not a purist. And, you know, I have an Instagram, I have a Twitter account, I like to send emails to my friends. And I think privacy is not an individual choice. You know, we’re looking at an ecosystem within which surveillance and, you know, the invasion of privacy, to be dramatic about it, is part of functioning in daily life. And I think we need to not think of this as a set of individual choices where we, you know, drop Facebook, and then we’ve done our duty and we’re now private, but think of this as a much larger structural issue that will require rethinking the role of a lot of these technologies in our social and political institutions.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
You can read more about Meredith Whittaker’s plans for Signal in her statement about taking on the new role.
Signal is, of course, not the only free messaging app with encryption protection — there are different levels of encryption on other apps like Telegram, iMessage and WhatsApp, owned by Meta.
And speaking of Meta, Facebook messenger is also testing its own end-to-end encryption feature.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Matthew Green at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute about that rollout and about the role of encryption in messaging apps more broadly.
But if you’re “in the market” to try out some other private messaging apps, here are a couple of lists from Tom’s Guide and The Verge with various takes on what the “best” encrypted messenger services are.
Of course, keeping communications truly private takes multiple stages of “digital hygiene.”