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‘You cannot do mass surveillance privately, full stop’: Signal boss hits out at government encryption-busting moves

<span>Meredith Whittaker says Signal will not comply with anti-encryption laws and would rather ‘cease operations’ if there is no other choice.</span><span>Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Meredith Whittaker says Signal will not comply with anti-encryption laws and would rather ‘cease operations’ if there is no other choice.Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

Police have used the “very legitimate grievance” the public has with large tech companies like Meta about data collection and surveillance as a pretext to undermine user privacy, the president of encrypted messaging app Signal has said.

Meredith Whittaker told Guardian Australia that it had become “an easy win with few political consequences” for politicians to beat up on Facebook in the past decade, and while there was legitimate public backlash against the “mass surveillance tech business model” the policy response had a “very unfortunate shape”.

“Instead of aiming for the root of these harms, the concentrated power at the heart of the platform monopoly, the mass surveillance that is the engine of this business model, collecting huge amounts of data on people, using that to target ads, to train AI models, to manipulate and influence people into spending more and more time on the platform and service of clicking ads … we see efforts almost to extend this surveillance and this monitoring and give governments a piece of it,” she said.

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Related: Australia’s big encryption-busting laws have done little more than give authorities the power to ask nicely

“It’s almost as if a very legitimate grievance has been turned into a pretext for doing what law enforcement has wanted all along while ignoring the core of the problem and, in some ways, even exacerbating it.”

Signal has been regarded as the most well-known dedicated encrypted messaging service since its launch in 2018. Whittaker has been president since 2022, at a time when countries such as Australia, the UK and the US were all pushing back on tech companies encrypting the private communications of their users. The encrypted communications make it not only impossible for the companies themselves to see what is being said, but also law enforcement.

Meta, in particular, has been the target of strong criticism from lawmakers for making its messaging services end-to-end encrypted last year. In Australia, despite there being barely used encryption-busting laws for law enforcement since 2018, law enforcement are asking tech companies to do more. Proposed online safety standards could force companies to do what is “technically feasible” to detect child abuse material being shared on encrypted messaging services.

Whittaker rejected the idea that it was a debate being had between lawmakers and the tech companies. It’s existential for Signal, she said.

“We have been consistently trying to clarify the technical reality and the stakes of the proposals that are being put forward, which are [a] ‘put lipstick on a mass surveillance proposal and say that it isn’t actually undermining privacy’,” she said.

“That doesn’t work for us. We need to live in the realm of technical reality.”

She said there was no way to implement what was being asked in a way that would preserve user privacy.

“What we’re talking about is a kind of self-negating paradox. You cannot do mass surveillance privately, full stop.”

Whittaker spoke to Guardian Australia ahead of a Wheeler Centre talk in Melbourne next week, and was meeting with the office of the Australian eSafety Commissioner this week to put Signal’s position on the proposals to the regulator.

Whittaker said Signal was offering its technical expertise to “cut through the mud” of the debate, noting that there had been a lot of lobbying on the issue from other organisations.

“There are a lot of self-interested tech organisations that are selling what amounts to snake oil … [they] tend to assert that, because mass surveillance systems are implemented before encryption takes place, they don’t undermine encryption.

“This is word games, this is not actually a technical assessment.”

Related: ‘Encryption is deeply threatening to power’: Meredith Whittaker of messaging app Signal

Signal would not comply with mass surveillance mandates in countries where it becomes law, she confirmed, and while the company would fight the laws, it would “cease operations” without a second thought if there was no other choice.

“We would not do that lightly, and we will fight until the end to ensure that as many people across the globe have access to meaningful privacy,” Whittaker added.

At the same time as regulators in western countries are pushing for more invasive surveillance powers for encrypted communications, there is a separate push to ban TikTok from countries including Australia over concerns about the company being forced to comply with China’s national security laws and hand over user data.

Whittaker said she had watched that debate with dismay.

“The issue isn’t simply that ‘mass surveillance is bad’ when a state we’re in competition with does it,” she said.

“Simply scapegoating one platform who is doing ultimately what all the other platforms do just in another relationship to another government is not solving this problem.”