How to take back your privacy online

Lauren Goode: From what I know about Meredith, she’s well qualified to have this conversation. She spent a lot of time at Google, which is a place that relies heavily on what she calls the “surveillance business model,” which is how companies use and sell our data to make money.

Gideon Lichfield: Exactly. She worked at Google for 13 years, and while there in 2018, he helped lead that massive employee walkout over how Google handled various sexual harassment cases. And now he runs the Signal Foundation, which runs the Signal app. So she’s well-versed on the issue of privacy and has a background in activism.

Lauren Goode: I know Signal is very popular with journalists. As people often say, “DM me for Signal”, because it’s a very secure way to communicate with sources. Do you use Signal, Gideon?

Gideon Lichfield: I obviously use it to buy my drugs and to order hits on my enemies, and to plot the overthrow of the government from time to time.

Lauren Goode: Well well. You haven’t done one of those in a while now.

Gideon Lichfield: This job does not leave much time. Anyway, what makes Signal interesting is that it was the first app to offer end-to-end encryption where the content of your messages cannot be read by the company, but now many other apps offer end-to-end encryption as well. What makes Signal different is that it still doesn’t collect almost any metadata, like who you’re sending messages to or the timestamps on them, and a lot of knowledge can be reconstructed from that kind of metadata. So it’s much more private than the other apps.

Lauren Goode: But Signal, at the end of the day, is still just a messaging app, and the privacy issue we’ve been talking about extends to everything on the internet, not just messaging. So I’m curious how we went from having this very private messaging to private everything else.

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 good future.

Meredith Whittaker: Gideon, I’m so happy to be here. Thank you.

Gideon Lichfield: Some of the guests that we have on this show are here to tell us about their vision of the future and how great it will be, and then our job is to ask them if this is really the future that we want. And I feel like you’re here to tell us about a future we can all probably agree on. No wants, which is one of total surveillance.

Meredith Whittaker: Yeah, I don’t think any of us want that, and I think happily there are plenty of ways around it, but they’ll take a bit of work.

Gideon Lichfield: My co-host Lauren sometimes likes to say that we’re like frogs boiling in surveillance water, and that over the last 15 or 20 years, we’ve gradually come to accept that privacy is dead, that everything we do online and every time more offline just generates data for big tech companies to feed on. And you started at Google in 2006, you left in 2019, so you’ve seen water go from room temperature to boiling point. Was it a slow comprehension for you or something you registered all at once?


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