Jun 5, 2024 - Technology

Signal's Meredith Whittaker: AI is a privacy nightmare

Meredith Whittaker on stage at the Axios AI+ Summit in New York

Meredith Whittaker. Photo credit: DP Jolly on behalf of Axios

The ChatGPT era's AI fever was engineered by tech giants who've been collecting users' personal information for the last decade, privacy expert Meredith Whittaker said at Axios' AI+ Summit Wednesday.

Why it matters: "If you close your eyes and imagine every email you've ever sent put in a database searchable by everyone, you know" why you should care about protecting your data, Whittaker said — and why you might worry about the AI era.

The big picture: Whittaker, president of encrypted messaging app Signal and co-founder of the AI Now Institute, has been an outspoken critic of the "surveillance business model" favored by big tech platforms.

  • Because it costs so much money to create and run AI models, tech companies will inevitably try to pay for them by selling our personal information, Whittaker told Axios' Ina Fried at the event in New York.
  • "It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to train these models," Whittaker said. "So there is deep pressure from companies — that are basically promising God and delivering email prompts — to make some return on investment in this technology."

Between the lines: Signal — which provides a fully encrypted messaging service — is a tech company, too, but a non-profit.

  • "We looked at the cold, hard business model of tech," Whittaker said, "and realized that if we were a for-profit it is very likely that we would be pushed to erode privacy guarantees in an industry where collecting, selling, and making use of personal data is the primary economic driver."

Whittaker called Microsoft's new Recall feature, which keeps an AI-searchable database of everything you do on your computer, "a serious hijacking of trust" and "a dangerous honeypot for hackers."

  • Many people run the Signal app on their desktops and have an expectation of privacy and encryption.
  • "I think we should be mortified," Whittaker said. "Especially those of us who have a bit of understanding of what this tech actually does and the track record of these companies and the political environment in which they're operating in."

The other side: Microsoft says Recall lets users delete specific snapshots, choose specific websites or apps not to include in Recall, and to snooze the feature for a particular period of time.

  • The company also suggests Recall data could help security teams track down malware infections.

Yes but: Whittaker does believe AI has some value. "It's not a useless technology," she said.

  • "There's a sort of groupthink around AI where people aren't pausing to actually differentiate between where our large models that recognize patterns are useful...and where we need to leave them alone," Whittaker told Fried.
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