On stage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2023, Meredith Whittaker, the president of the Signal Foundation, which maintains the nonprofit Signal messaging app, reaffirmed that Signal would leave the U.K. if the country’s recently-passed Online Safety Bill forced Signal to build “backdoors” into its end-to-end encryption.
“We would leave the U.K. or any jurisdiction if it came down to the choice between backdooring our encryption and betraying the people who count on us for privacy, or leaving,” Whittaker said. “And that’s never not true.”
The Online Safety Bill, which was passed into law in September, includes a clause — clause 122 — that, depending on how it’s interpreted, could allow the U.K.’s communications regulator, Ofcom, to break the encryption of apps and services under the guise of making sure illegal material such as child sexual exploitation and abuse content is removed.
Ofcom could fine companies not in compliance up to £18 million ($22.28 million), or 10% of their global annual revenue, under the bill — whichever is greater.
Whittaker didn’t mince words in airing her fears about the Online Safety Bill’s implications.
“We’re not about political stunts, so we’re not going to just pick up our toys and go home to, like, show the bad U.K. they’re being mean,” she said. “We’re really worried about people in the U.K. who would live under a surveillance regime like the one that seems to be teased by the Home Office and others in the U.K.”
Whittaker noted that Signal takes a number of steps to ensure its users remain anonymous regardless of the laws and regulations in their particular country. Asked onstage what data Signal’s handed over in the instances that it’s received search warrants, Whittaker said that it’s been limited to the phone number registered to a Signal account and the last time a user accessed their account.
“We have no other data,” Whittaker said. “We have very, very little data, and that’s the only way to actually guarantee privacy. If you collect it, it can be breached, it can be subpoenaed … so we proceed on a very strict ethos that we want as little [data] as possible and we’ll go out of our way not to collect it.”
It’s that dedication to privacy that’s contributed to Signal’s success, in part. As of January 2022, the platform had approximately 40 million monthly active users and over 100 million downloads.
Reflecting on what might lie ahead for not only for Signal but for messaging apps in general, Whittaker expressed a hope that encrypted messaging would someday become synonymous with messaging. She pointed to reasons for optimism, like Meta planning to roll out end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger and Instagram in spite of the U.K.’s Online Safety Bill.
“[We need to recognize] that communications in the digital space should respect the norm of communications for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years, which was, if I’m talking to my boss [or] my potential employer, that conversation isn’t be surveilled. No one’s keeping a copy of it that could be subpoenaed later.”