Threat of surveillance is existential technology – The skepticism that has enabled tech companies to earn billions of dollars through surveillance is now fading the way for encryption, the chief of the encrypted messaging application Signal declared.
Meredith Whittaker, who spent many years at Google before she helped stage a walkout of employees in 2018 about working conditions, claimed the tech industry was “valorised” and “fetishised” when she first started working in the field.
“The idea that technology was the pinnacle of advancement and innovation was widely accepted in the world of government in popular culture as well,” her remarks were made on the fringes of the Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon this week.
However, users and legislators were now weighing up the “well-documented dangers of allowing some large corporations the ability to watch nearly all aspects of our lives”.
She added that people were searching for apps such as Signal as they realized the “real risks of putting your most private thoughts, their places and their networks of friends in the hands of corporations and state surveillance agencies”.
Ms Whittaker was the founder of her AI Now Institute at New York University in 2017 and has provided advice to US authorities on government regulation; she has been a prominent critic of business models that rely on the collection of data from individuals to create targeted ads.
She was elected president of Signal about two months ago and is pushing for Signal to be an actual alternative to WhatsApp as well as Apple’s iMessage.
“We are determined to ensure that every person on the planet is able to pick up their phone and quickly start Signal and make use of it to talk to anybody else,” she said.
The odds are in favor of WhatsApp: WhatsApp says it has around 1,000 engineers as well as a lot of support employees, and the company employs 40 employees all in all.
The app is run by a non-profit organization called The Signal Foundation, and is only now beginning to ask users for donations of a small amount to continue the service.
The company’s David against Goliath strategy was revealed in January, when co-founder Moxie Marlinspike resigned as chief executive. She explained the difficulties it took to maintain the app.
“I was the one who wrote all Android code, I was writing all the server’s code, was the sole person who was available to provide the service, was in charge of the development of all products and managed everyone,” he wrote in an online journal that day.
However, Signal is downloaded over 100 million times, and while Ms. Whittaker does not confirm the numbers, sources in the past estimated that the number of regular users.
She is not intimidated by the challenge, saying that having a talented team helps reduce the gap to the competition.
“We have a small group who are highly competent, yet we’re far, far above our capabilities,” she said.
Signal is gaining more supporters in the privacy sector.
Services for email such as Proton and search engine DuckDuckGo and many other companies offering data analytics claim to be privacy-oriented apps.