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Signal hires former Google manager Meredith Whittaker as first president

An outspoken critic of the dangers of AI, Whittaker promises to keep Signal users out of tech giants' "surveillant gaze"

Signal has appointed Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of the AI Now Institute and founder of Google’s Open Research Group, as its first-ever president.

As president, effective September 12, Whittaker will be responsible for company strategy. Speaking to The Washington Post, she outlined her priority as sustaining the firm’s funding, noting that it “costs tens of millions of dollars per year to develop and maintain an app like Signal.”

The encrypted messaging service Signal is primarily known for its app, which provides users with end-to-end encryption (E2EE) on all messages by default and has been widely used by protesters seeking to avoid surveillance.

A former Google manager, Whittaker was one of the main organisers of the 2018 walkout that saw 20,000 employees leave their desks to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment cases and forced arbitration. After drawn out action, the movement secured Google employees' class action rights and an end to the forced arbitration practice.

Further protests in which Whittaker was involved centred around Google’s involvement in the Pentagon’s ‘Project Maven’, which would have seen AI used to enhance the capabilities of military drones. Employee pressure eventually forced Google to withdraw from the project altogether, and publish an AI ethics code.

Since leaving the company, Whittaker has been a prominent critic of artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition technology, testifying before congress that both carry the risk of entrenching existing biases against minorities. She has also advised the Federal Trade Commission on AI in the role of senior advisor.

“Signal is not made for pristine academic speculation, it is made to be used by real people, all over the world,” stated Whittaker, in a blog post announcing her appointment to the role.

“And many millions do use it, turning to Signal for a safe and pleasant space where intimate, experimental, and private communication can happen outside of the surveillant gaze of dominant tech companies and states who can and do subpoena their data.

“I believe that Signal is core infrastructure whose growth and stability is imperative for a livable future. And as Signal’s President I will do everything I can to build on Signal’s firm foundation and vision, and to create a rich soil where Signal can continue to grow and thrive. 

“I’m honored to be taking this role, and I’m grateful to the team whose careful work makes Signal possible, and to the community beyond who contribute labor and intelligence that helps us maintain our rigorous standards. Onward!”

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Whittaker assumes her position amidst growing government hostility towards the use of E2EE in messaging apps. The currently stalled Online Safety Bill received an amendment in July that would compel companies operating messaging apps to scan for child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) content and remove it from their platform or be fined up to 10% of their worldwide revenue. Firms would be required to use “best endeavours to develop or source” technology to do the same, effectively mandating backdoors into messaging apps that security services could use. 

Last year, Meta continued with its roll out of encryption as default across the direct messaging of its apps Messenger and Instagram, facing harsh criticism from the UK government. Despite this, experts have argued that E2EE is a necessary technology and that restricting the technology would have a detrimental effect on the tech landscape.

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