The encrypted messaging and calling app Signal has become a unique phenomenon in the world of technology: it was born from preferred encrypted messaging of the privacy-paranoid elite in legitimately mainstream service with hundreds of millions of installations worldwide. And it did it entirely as a non-profit effort, with no venture capital or monetization model, while holding its own against the world’s best-funded Silicon Valley competitors like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Gmail and iMessage.
Today, Signal reveals something about what it takes to make that happen, and it doesn’t come cheap. For the first time, the Signal Foundation that runs the app has released a full breakdown of Signal’s operating costs: about $40 million this year, and expected to reach $50 million by 2025.
Signal President Meredith Whittaker says her decision to release detailed cost figures in a blog post for the first time – going well beyond the legally required IRS disclosures for nonprofits – was more than just a blunt appeal for year-end giving. By revealing the price of operating a modern communications service, she said, she wanted to draw attention to how competitors pay for those same expenses: either by profiting directly from the monetization of user data, or, depending on it, by locking users into networks that very often operate with this same business model of corporate surveillance.
“By being honest about these costs ourselves, we think it helps provide insight into the driving force of the tech industry, the surveillance business model, that isn’t always obvious to people,” Whittaker told WIRED. Running a service like Signal, or WhatsApp, Gmail or Telegram, is, she says, “surprisingly expensive. You may not know it, and there’s a good reason why you don’t know it, and that’s because it’s not something that the companies that pay for these expenses via monitoring to want You must know it.
Signal pays $14 million a year in infrastructure costs, for example, including the price of servers, bandwidth and storage. It uses about 20 petabytes of bandwidth per year, or 20 million gigabytes, to enable just voice and video calls, which amounts to $1.7 million per year. The largest portion of these infrastructure costs, $6 million per year, goes to telecommunications companies to pay for the SMS text messages that Signal uses to send registration codes to verify phone numbers for new accounts Signal. That cost has increased, Signal says, as telecom companies charge more for these text messages in an effort to offset declining SMS usage in favor of cheaper services like Signal and WhatsApp around the world.
About $19 million more per year from Signal’s budget goes to fund its staff. Signal now employs around fifty people, a much larger team than a few years ago. In 2016, Signal had just three full-time employees working in a single room in a coworking space in San Francisco. “People didn’t take vacations,” says Whittaker. “People weren’t getting on the plane because they didn’t want to be disconnected if there was an outage or something.” Although the era of bare-bones teams is over (Whittaker says it wasn’t sustainable for those few overworked employees), she says a team of 50 is still a small number compared to departments with basic users of similar size, often numbering in the thousands. employees.