(Bloomberg) – The encrypted messaging company Signal has long been popular with activists, investigative journalists, politicians, and law enforcement authorities due to its emphasis on privacy and security. The company’s growth was steady, but slow. Then, after the Christmas holidays, Signal employees had to handle an unexpected surge of new users that overloaded their servers, and engineers had to rush to increase capacity.
Suddenly, a niche app endorsed by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden was invaded by new users – more than 50 million people downloaded it within 10 days, doubling Signal’s total user base and making it the Most downloaded app in 70 countries, according to various current and former employees. The meteoric growth put great pressure on Signal’s 30 or so employees, mostly engineers, product designers and developers who work remotely from their homes in the United States and Canada.
The deluge also exposed tensions over the direction and management of Signal under its unconventional founder and CEO, Moxie Marlinspike, a dreadlocked cryptographer whose varied interests include punk rock, sailing and anarchism. Some employees quit last year, leaving some engineering teams understaffed. Others have complained about Marlinspike’s oversight, the increasing use of Signal by extremist groups, and a new cryptocurrency feature that they fear could be used for criminal conduct.
Current and former employees, who asked not to be named, describe Marlinspike as a technical genius but a stubborn boss who has resisted the growth of Signal’s small team. For a long time it had a “deadly grip” on Signal’s underlying code and servers, said a former employee. That control sometimes caused internal frustration, several current and former employees said. But in recent months, he has been gradually relinquishing his tight control over the company’s infrastructure, entrusting other executives and employees with the ability to modify code and access tightly guarded servers and encryption keys, according to two current employees. Signal’s problems are no different than those of other tech companies that have struggled for rapid growth. Google and Facebook, among others, faced internal dissent as companies grew from rudimentary, idealistic startups to tech giants. But Signal is different in several important ways: It’s a nonprofit that relies on contributions to fund. its operations and is led by a founder who has shown little interest in the traditional rewards of business success. Can a nonprofit run by a former anarchist pose a serious challenge to big tech companies? Signal can benefit from “people looking for more viable and virtuous alternatives,” said Dan Blah, co-founder of Reset and Open Technology Fund, organizations that financially support technological projects that promote human rights and democracy. In his role at Open Technology Fund, Blah helped provide about $ 3 million in funding to Marlinspike for the development of Signal.Blah, he said the question is whether Signal can meet the challenge. “They will not lack opportunities to grow,” he said. But from a sustainability perspective, can they cope with that growth? Within the current market and political realities, it is anyone’s guess ”.
In phone and text interviews, of course via Signal, Marlinspike dismissed criticism of his leadership style and said it did not reflect the views of everyone at the company. He also defended the size of his staff. “I don’t think it’s better, necessary, or inevitable for all tech organizations to be operations of several hundred or thousands of people,” he said. He also sparked criticism against Facebook, saying that many people are increasingly dissatisfied with its privacy policies. and those of other tech giants. Consequently, he said he was not entirely surprised by the rapid increase in new Signal users.
Facebook declined to comment on Marlinspike’s remarks.
Original Note: Signal Takes on Facebook and Staff Dissent as Popularity Surges (1)
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