What is price privacy? The end-to-end encrypted (E2EE) messaging app Signal has released a interesting overview of the costs required to develop and maintain its pro-privacy systems that protect user data from tracking by default.
the blog post, written by Signal president Meredith Whittaker and developer Joshua Lund, revealed that it currently spends $14 million annually on infrastructure to run the private messaging service; and an additional $19 million per year in personnel costs — totaling circa $33M to keep the lights on and its “millions” of users’ messages safe from prying eyes.
It also projects that the cost of running its service will rise to nearly $50M by 2025.
Per post, just 50 full-time staff keep the messaging service running, while also conducting research to keep pushing the envelope on privacy protection and — in Whittaker’s case at least — having what it looks like. in a full-time job in and of himself in public policy advocacy that has seen him shuttling around the world in recent months in protection of privacy rights and attempt to prevent government incursions targeting E2EE.
The post conveys a clear message: Going against the grain of the tech industry by keeping users safe from surveillance is an expensive — but important — business.
Signal is a non-profit so it is not a money-making type of business. But of course there still needs to be enough funds coming in to cover the costs. And, obviously, the costs go up as usage increases. Which means it needs to be proactive about finding ways to increase revenue without compromising its basic pro-user stance.
As the blog post details, Signal continues to protect user privacy more than mainstream messaging apps that implement its E2EE protocol (such as Meta-owned WhatsApp). “To take one example, profile pictures and profile names are always end-to-end encrypted with Signal,” it wrote. “This means that Signal does not have access to your profile name or selected profile photo. This approach is unique in the industry. Indeed, it did more than six years since we first announced this extra layer of protection, and as far as we know none of our competitors have adopted it.
“Other messengers can easily see your profile picture, profile name, and other sensitive information that Signal cannot access. Our choice here reflects our strong commitment to privacy but it also means that Signal needed more effort to implement support for profile pictures. Instead of a weekend project for an engineer, our teams had to develop new methods and concepts internally in the codebase (like profile keys), which they are working to roll out to more platforms after a long testing period.
Disclosure of how much (has) been spent annually on essential items such as storage ($1.3M), servers ($2.9M), registration fees ($6M), bandwidth ($2.8M), other needs of infrastructure such as disaster recovery ($700k), as well as the aforementioned $19m in staff (covering wages, taxes and related HR costs), intended to (slowly) wake up the audience – and, hopefully, it will get a few more users to reach into their wallets to log in and help ensure a gold-standard choice of private messaging.
“Frankly speaking, as a nonprofit we don’t have investors or for-profit board members knocking around in times of trouble, urging us to ‘sacrifice a little privacy’ in the name of hitting growth and monetary targets. This is important in an industry where ‘free’ consumer technology is almost always underwritten by the monetization of surveillance and invasion of privacy,” it warned.
“Instead of monitoring monetization, we are supported by donations, including a generous initial loan from Brian Acton. Our goal is to move as close as possible to being fully supported by small donors, who rely on a large number of modest contributions from people who care about Signal. We believe that this is the safest form of funding in terms of sustainability: Ensuring that we remain accountable to the people who uses Signal, avoiding any point of funding failure, and rejecting the widespread practice of monetizing surveillance.
As the post details, even alternative technology tools like Signal have to pay into the coffers of the industry giants that own and operate the app’s essential infrastructure like cloud computing as well, usually, too. in the business of data acquisition and surveillance.