The encrypted-messaging service Signal is the application of choice for dissenters around the world. The app has been downloaded by more than 100 million users and boasts high-profile endorsements from NSA leaker Edward Snowden and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk. Signal has created the perception that its users, including political dissidents, can communicate with one another without fear of government interception or persecution.

But the insider history of Signal raises questions about the app’s origins and its relationship with government—in particular, with the American intelligence apparatus. Such a relationship would be troubling, given how much we have learned, in recent years, about extensive efforts to control and censor information undertaken by technology companies, sometimes in tandem with American government officials.

First, the origin story. The technology behind Signal, which operates as a nonprofit foundation, was initially funded, in part, through a $3 million grant from the government-sponsored Open Technology Fund (OTF), which was spun off from Radio Free Asia, originally established as an anti-Communist information service during the Cold War. OTF funded Signal to provide “encrypted mobile communication tools” to “Internet freedom defenders globally.”

Some insiders have argued that the connection between OTF and U.S. intelligence is deeper than it appears. One person who has worked extensively with OTF but asked to remain anonymous told me that, over time, it became increasingly clear “that the project was actually a State Department-connected initiative that planned to wield open source Internet projects made by hacker communities as tools for American foreign policy goals”—including by empowering “activists [and] parties opposed to governments that the USA doesn’t like.” Whatever the merits of such efforts, the claim—if true—suggests a government involvement with Signal that deserves more scrutiny.

The other potential problem is the Signal Foundation’s current chairman of the board, Katherine Maher, who started her career as a U.S.-backed agent of regime change. During the Arab Spring period, for instance, Maher ran digital-communications initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa for the National Democratic Institute, a largely government-funded organization that works in concert with American foreign policy campaigns. Maher cultivated relationships with online dissidents and used American technologies to advance the interests of U.S.-supported Color Revolutions abroad.

Maher then became CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation in 2016, and, earlier this year, was named CEO of National Public Radio. At Wikipedia, Maher became a campaigner against “disinformation” and admitted to coordinating online censorship “through conversations with government.” She openly endorsed removing alleged “fascists,” including President Trump, from digital platforms, and described the First Amendment as “the number one challenge” to eliminating “bad information.”

According to the insider, a woman named Meredith Whittaker, who became president of the Signal Foundation in 2022, recruited Maher to become board chair because of their mutual connections to OTF, where Maher also serves as an advisor, and to nonprofits such as Access Now, which “defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world,” including in the Middle East and North Africa. Whittaker, like Maher, is highly ideological. She previously worked in a high position at Google and organized left-wing campaigns within the company, culminating in the 2018 “Google Walkout,” which demanded MeToo-style sexual harassment policies and the hiring of a chief diversity officer.

So what does all this mean for American users—including conservative dissidents—who believe that Signal is a secure application for communication? It means that they should be cautious. “Maher’s presence on the board of Signal is alarming,” says national security analyst J. Michael Waller. “It makes sense that a Color Revolutionary like Maher would have interest in Signal as a secure means of communicating,” he says, but her past support for censorship and apparent intelligence connections raise doubts about Signal’s trustworthiness. David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the popular Ruby on Rails web-development framework, agrees, saying that it had “suddenly become materially harder” to trust the Signal Foundation under Maher’s board leadership.

For those who believe in a free and open Internet, Maher’s Signal role should be a flashing warning sign. As she once explained, she abandoned the mission of a free and open Internet at Wikipedia, because those principles recapitulated a “white male Westernized construct” and “did not end up living into the intentionality of what openness can be.” The better path, in her view, is managed opinion, using, alternately, censorship and promotion of dissent—depending on context and goal—as the essential methods.

We’re entering a dangerous period in political technology, and Maher is in the thick of it. Under her ideology, “Internet freedom” is a tactic, not a principle, and “fighting disinformation” means speech suppression, including here at home. When people tell you who they are, believe them.

Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images


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