Lauren Goode: From what I know about Meredith, she’s qualified to talk. He spends a lot of time at Google, which is a place that relies heavily on what he calls the “monitoring business model,” which is how businesses use and sell our data to make money.
Gideon Lichfield: That’s right. He worked at Google for 13 years, and while he was there in 2018, he helped lead several employee walkouts over how Google handled several sexual harassment cases. And now he heads the Signal Foundation, which runs the Signal app. So he is well versed in the subject of privacy and has experience in activism.
Lauren Goode: I know Signal is very popular with journalists. As people often say, “DM me for Signal,” because it’s a safe way to communicate with sources. Do you use Signal, Gideon?
Gideon Lichfield: Obviously I use it to buy my drugs and to order hits on my enemies, and to plan to overthrow the government often.
Lauren Goode: Right, right. You haven’t done one of these in a while now.
Gideon Lichfield: This job does not leave much time. However, what makes Signal interesting is that it is the first app that offers end-to-end encryption where the company cannot read the content of your messages, but now many other apps also offer end-to-end encryption. What makes Signal different is, it still doesn’t collect almost any metadata, like who you send messages to, or their timestamps, and a lot of knowledge can be reconstructed from that kind of metadata. So it is more private than other apps.
Lauren Goode: But Signal is, at the end of the day, just a messaging app, and the privacy problem we’re talking about extends to everything on the internet, not just messaging. So I’m curious how do we go from having this private messaging to having everything private?
Gideon Lichfield: Well, that’s exactly what I wanted to ask Meredith, and that conversation is after the break.
Gideon Lichfield: Meredith Whittaker, welcome to Have a Bright Future.
Meredith Whittaker: Gideon, I’m so happy to be here. Thank you.
Gideon Lichfield: Some of the guests who are on this show are here to tell us about their vision of the future and how wonderful it is, and then our job is to ask them if this is really the future we want. . And I feel like you’re here to tell us about a future we can all agree on maybe do not want, which is one of the general surveillance.
Meredith Whittaker: Yes, I don’t think any of us want that, and I think there are happily many ways to avoid it, but they will take a little work.
Gideon Lichfield: My colleague Lauren sometimes likes to say that we are like frogs boiling water in surveillance, and that over the last 15 or 20 years, we have gradually accepted that privacy is dead, that the every thing we do online and more. Offline just creates data for big tech companies to feed on. And you started at Google in 2006, you left in 2019, so you watched water go from room temperature to boiling point. Was it a slow realization for you or something you clocked all at once?