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Signal president Meredith Whittaker is building an alternative to Big Tech’s ‘surveillance business model’

November 29, 2022, 1:03 PM UTC
Meredith Whittaker, president of Signal.
Courtesy of Signal

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! The Queen Consort ditches ladies-in-waiting, First Lady Jill Biden unveils the White House holiday decorations, and Signal president Meredith Whittaker is building an alternative tech business model. Have a lovely Tuesday.

– Sign of the times. If you ask Meredith Whittaker, Big Tech’s problems stem from its business model—one that incentivizes growth and revenue generation, often at the expense of user privacy.

The “surveillance business model,” as Whittaker calls it, is lucrative and low-hanging fruit. In her new job as Signal’s president, she’s figuring out an alternative.

In September, the longtime Google tech leader—and critic—was tapped to head the encrypted messaging app, monetize it, and develop a financially sustainable path forward.

“The surveillance business model that is underwriting most of the tech industry is not something we can participate in,” she says. “We have to figure out how to make money and how to exist to the standards set by the surveillance tech industry without participating in that surveillance.”

Signal launched in 2014 as a user-friendly form of encrypted messaging. The platform stores minimal user data or information other than which phone numbers sign up for Signal accounts. It’s since attracted millions of users, Whittaker says, who are concerned about Big Tech surveillance, looking for a secure communications tool, or have become disillusioned by competitor offerings, such as WhatsApp after its terms of service change. Whittaker says she almost exclusively uses Signal to communicate, though her therapist is the last holdout.

Meredith Whittaker, president of Signal.
Courtesy of Signal

At Signal, she’s leaning toward a donor-funded model that asks users to chip in $3 or $5. (The platform is registered as a nonprofit.) But the platform’s refusal to collect user information makes basic tasks like establishing a payment system more complicated than they’d be at a typical tech company. One recent example is the company’s effort to build a payment system that won’t store names or credit card information instead of setting up a basic Stripe API. “It’s orders of magnitude harder to do normal things in a privacy-preserving way,” Whittaker says.

Her new role follows a long tech career. She started at Google in 2006 and eventually became the company’s Open Research Group leader. In 2018, she was an organizer of the Google Walkout, during which thousands of employees protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment claims and a contract with the Department of Defense. Reflecting on that time, Whittaker says she had to take action because her “integrity was at stake.” She was building a name for herself, championing ethics in A.I., while her employer was making decisions that she thought stood in opposition to that work. 

Fixing Big Tech will require a system-wide approach rather than an individual one, Whittaker says. It’s a realization that’s become clearer since stepping into a leadership role herself. “You can have an enlightened CEO who says, ‘This feels wrong,’ but then the board is going to fire them because a board has a fiduciary duty,” she says.

Competing with Big Tech without adopting its practices will be a challenge for Signal. But Whittaker is adamant that the platform will not become a form of social media; it doesn’t have a feed, but it did introduce a stories feature earlier this month.

“People have conflated the progression of technological products created by private corporations with scientific innovation,” she says. “But they’re different things. What tech executives might choose to do to try to optimize for gross and profit does not necessarily have anything to do with an innovative approach.”

Emma Hinchliffe

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