Home Tech ‘Encryption is a profound threat to power’: Meredith Whittaker of messaging app Signal

‘Encryption is a profound threat to power’: Meredith Whittaker of messaging app Signal

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'Encryption is a profound threat to power': Meredith Whittaker of messaging app Signal

Meredith Whittaker practices what she preaches. As president of the Signal Foundation, she is a strident voice supporting privacy for all. But she doesn’t just say empty words.

In 2018, she came into the public eye as one of the organizers of the Google strikes, mobilizing 20,000 of the search giant’s employees in a dual protest over the company’s support for state surveillance and its conduct failures. inappropriate sexual

Even now, after half a decade in the public eye, with congressional testimony, university professorships and advisory roles in federal agencies under his belt, Whittaker remains firmly privacy-conscious.

It is not unusual for business leaders to politely deflect the question when asked about their salary because of the CV that accompanies these interviews, for example. It is somewhat less common to flatly refuse to comment on your age and family. “As a privacy advocate, Whittaker does not answer personal questions that could be used to deduce her passwords or ‘secret answers’ for her banking authentication,” a staff member says after the interview. “She encourages others to do the same!”

When she left Google, Whittaker shared an internal memo that made clear that she was committed to working on the ethical deployment of artificial intelligence and organizing a “responsible technology industry.” She said: “It’s clear that Google is not a place where this work can continue.” That clarity and unwillingness to compromise has led to Signal.

The Signal Foundation, created in 2017 with $50 million in funding from WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, exists to “protect free expression and enable secure global communication through open source privacy technology.”

He took over the development of its messaging app, also called Signal, in 2018, and Whittaker joined the newly created position of president in 2022, just in time to begin defending Signal, and encryption in general, against a wave of attacks by nation states and companies around the world.

Legislation such as Britain’s Online Safety Act (OSA) and the EU’s child sexual abuse regulation contained language that could be used to ban or decrypt private communications, while Meta’s proposals to enable end-to-end encryption for Facebook and Instagram sparked a fierce reaction from politicians such as Priti Patel, who branded the plans “catastrophic” as UK Home Secretary.

These attacks are nothing new, Whittaker says when we meet at the of the observer Offices. “You can go back to 1976, when (Whitfield) Diffie and (Martin) Hellman were trying to publish the paper that introduced public key cryptography, which is the technique that allows us to have working encrypted communication over the Internet. There were intelligence services trying to prevent it.

“Throughout the 1980s, there was deep concern that the NSA (US National Security Agency) and GCHQ would lose their monopoly on encryption, and in the 1990s, it ended up controlled by treaties. of weapons: these are the ‘crypto wars’. You couldn’t mail your code to someone in Europe; “It was considered an export of ammunition.”

But then the huge push to commercialize the Internet forced a softening, to some extent. “Transaction encryption was enabled and large companies were able to choose exactly what was encrypted. At the same time, the Clinton administration supported surveillance advertising as a business model, so there was an incentive to collect data on customers to sell to them.”

Surveillance, he says, was a “disease” from the very beginning of the Internet, and encryption is “deeply threatening to the kind of power that is constituted through these information asymmetries.” All of which means he doesn’t expect the fight to end anytime soon. “I don’t think these arguments are in good faith. There is a deeper tension here, because in 20 years of developing this metastatic tech industry, we have seen every aspect of our lives subject to mass surveillance perpetrated by a handful of companies associated with the US government and other ‘Five Eyes’ agencies. to collect more surveillance data on us than has ever been available to any entity in human history.

“So if we don’t continue to protect these small privacy restrictions and ultimately expand them (we have to put some elbows together to get a little more space here), I think we’re in for a much bleaker future than we expected.” . “It will be if we can maintain this ground and we can expand the space for privacy and free communication.”

Criticism of encrypted communications is as old as technology: allowing anyone to talk without the State being able to intervene in their conversations is a boon for criminals, terrorists and pedophiles around the world.

But, Whittaker maintains, few of Signal’s harshest critics seem to be consistent in what matters to them. “If we really care about helping children, why are UK schools falling apart? Why were social services funded at only 7% of the amount suggested to fully staff agencies that are on the front lines of stopping abuse?”

Sometimes criticism is more unexpected. Signal was recently dragged into America’s culture wars after a failed right-wing campaign to depose National Public Radio’s new CEO, Katherine Maher, expanded to cover Signal, where Maher sits on the board of directors. Elon Musk got involved and promoted conspiracy theories about the Signal app. that once promoted – had “known vulnerabilities,” in response to a claim that the app “may be compromised.”

The accusations were “a weapon in a propaganda war to spread disinformation,” Whittaker says. “We see similar lines of disinformation, which often seem designed to drive people away from Signal, linked to escalations in the Ukraine conflict. “We believe these campaigns are designed to scare people away from Signal toward less secure alternatives that may be more susceptible to hacking and interception.”

The same technology that draws criticism of the foundation has made it popular with governments and militaries around the world that need to protect their own conversations from the prying eyes of state hackers and others.

Whittaker sees this as a leveler: Signal is for everyone.

“Signal either works for everyone or it doesn’t work for anyone. Every military member in the world uses Signal, every politician I know uses Signal. Every CEO I know uses Signal because anyone who has something truly confidential to communicate recognizes that storing it in a metadatabase or on some Google server is not good practice.”

Whittaker’s vision is singular and allows no distractions. Despite his interest in AI, he is wary of combining it with Signal and criticizes apps like Meta’s WhatsApp that have introduced AI-enabled features.

“I am very proud that we do not have an AI strategy. We would have to look ourselves in the face and say: where does that data come from to train the models? Where does the input data come from? How do we achieve an AI strategy, given that our whole goal is to preserve privacy and not surveil people?

Whatever the future holds in terms of technology and political attitudes toward privacy, Whittaker insists his principles are an existential issue.

“We will maintain the correct line. “We would rather close down as a going concern than undermine or backdoor the privacy guarantees we offer people.”


Age No comment.
Family No comment.
Education I studied literature and rhetoric at Berkeley before joining Google in 2006, where I learned the rest.
Pay No comment.

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