Meredith Whittaker (Signal): “You will not see advertising or content created by influencers on Signal”

For Signal, no respite for the protection of personal data. Managed by a foundation, the anti-Whatsapp relies above all on respect for privacy to make its place on the market.

JDN. Signal is often touted as the most secure instant messaging app. How does it work different from Whatsapp?

Meredith Whittaker Signal You will not see advertising or content
Meredith Whittaker is the President of Signal Messaging. © Signal

Meredith Whittaker. Signal and Whatsapp each encrypt the content of messages. Whatsapp also uses the Signal protocol, which is the best cryptographic protocol today. However, Signal is not limited to securing the content of messages since we do not store any metadata. We do not collect any information about our users, be it their name, profile, etc. Apart from the technological aspect, our revenue models are also very different. Our model is not based on the display of advertising and therefore our objective is not to make you spend as much time as possible on the application

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, whose model is based on advertising and the monetization of personal data. The company is thus able to combine the metadata collected via Whatsapp with other user data, which is not our case. Finally, Signal is run by a non-profit organization and its software is open-source.

What are the main benefits of using an open source instant messaging application?

The main advantage of this model is that our users can go and check everything we do. As soon as we make changes to our computer code, these are systematically examined in detail. Some programmers have even tried, in vain, to hacker the encryption protocol we use. This model allows us to create a bond of trust with our community. We have chosen to structure ourselves as a non-profit organization in order to be able to focus our efforts on our mission and not on profit or growth objectives. This structure also allows us to show total transparency, like our finances, which are also public.

Signal is funded entirely by donations, and counts among its historical supporters Brian Acton, co-founder of Whatsapp. What is its role within the organization and who are the other donors?

Brian has indeed made a significant and visionary donation (fifty million dollars in 2018, after leaving Facebook in September 2017, editor’s note) which made possible the creation of the Signal Foundation. He currently sits on the board as executive chairman. We are currently looking to diversify the origin of our funds by reaching out directly to our users. It is now possible to make a donation from the application. Convincing millions of small donors offers the advantage of not depending on one or more large donors who could change their mind overnight by deciding to support another project. It also strengthens the user’s connection to our service. We are just beginning to experiment with this model but the results are very encouraging.

Among the donors, we can also mention Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter. How do you explain this support from personalities in the technology sector?

We have indeed received significant donations from personalities who, like Brian Acton, are concerned about privacy. These are often people who have worked in the technology sector and who share our vision. They were able to see from the inside the danger that a business model based on ubiquitous surveillance and private data collection. They are aware of the risk of giving too much power to large multinationals and want to protect the privacy of users.

You launched the “stories” within the application at the beginning of November 2022. Is the goal to evolve Signal into a social platform, beyond instant messaging?

No, the Stories format remains a means of communication. The difference is that you won’t see advertising or content created by influencers on Signal like you can see on Instagram. This is content created by your friends, to which you can react. Signal is primarily a messaging and communication tool and we have no intention of turning it into a broadcast platform or a social network. This is why we do not intend to integrate channels, like Telegram.

In April 2021, you started testing payment integration, in particular the transfer of cryptocurrencies with MobileCoin. For what results?

This payment integration is very experimental. And since it is our principle not to make tracking of what our users are doing, we have no numbers to share.

“Signal is a small structure with around forty employees.”

Do you believe that Signal can eventually evolve into an e-commerce platform like WeChat or facilitate customer-business exchanges as Whatsapp wishes?

No, because that would mean setting up a completely different business model. To introduce e-commerce functionalities, you must have certain authorizations, but also have an adapted after-sales service, a service to detect fraud, agreements with sellers and buyers, etc. Signal does not have such an infrastructure. We would probably have to develop a new organization, which is not in our plans at the moment. Signal is a small structure with around forty employees. Our success comes precisely from our ability to stay focused on what we do very well.

Some countries like China or more recently Iran have blocked access to communication tools like Signal. What are your initiatives to counter these blockages?

Our commitment is total alongside all the people who live in these countries and who have the right to respect for their private life. When access to Signal was blocked in Iran, we called on our community there to set up servers proxy. Many actions were beyond our control but we did everything in our power as quickly as possible to allow the Iranians to continue to communicate confidentially. We have in particular published the instructions and added proxy support to the iOS version. We will always engage with our users, no matter where they are.

Telegram is often perceived as one of the most secure messaging apps. Is it your main competitor in this niche of private communication?

Even though Telegram’s marketing revolves a lot around data privacy, it should be noted that the application offers message encryption as an option and does not activate it by default.

Meredith Whittaker is the president of the instant messaging app Signal and sits on the board of directors of the Signal Foundation. This non-profit organization was created in February 2018 by Moxie Marlinspike and Brian Acton, co-founders of WhatsApp. Prior to that, Meredith was a research professor at NYU and headed the AI ​​Now Institute which she co-founded. She worked for ten years at Google and founded the Open Research Group. During these years at Google, she also co-founded the M-Lab, a platform dedicated to open data.

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Meredith Whittaker (Signal): “You will not see advertising or content created by influencers on Signal”


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