The January hack attack on Snapchat outraged its users, 4.6 million of whom entrusted their personal information to the self-destructing messaging service, only to find their names and phone numbers had been leaked and made searchable on a well-meaning, creepy-looking website. It outraged tech reporters, who lambasted the company for its unapologetic response. One Wall Street Journal writer even proposed a boycott of Snapchat.
But amid the chorus of anger rose one discordantly joyful voice: Nico Sell, co-founder of Wickr and a hungry competitor to Snapchat. “We are happy to see 50 percent more growth this year since the hack,” she wrote via her own self-destructing message service. “Kabooooommmmmmmmmm!” she added. Six seconds later a fireball engulfed the message in animated flames and smoke, wiping it clean from all devices for good, she says. The future of her business depends on it.
The demand for the most secure, most private self-destructing message out there builds with each spectacular story of hack attack. Sell has a front row seat to the panic. Users flocked to her app after hackers infiltrated Snapchat and Skype and in the wake of Edward Snowden's disclosures — the motherlode of hacking stories. As Snowden revealed NSA taps in Germany, Brazil, Mexico and France, Sell saw spikes in usage as high as 1000% in one affected country after the next, perfectly coinciding with the news. Even after the dust settles on these stories, Sell expects more snafus to come. “Do you know how many other people are looking at your social graphs too,” she asks, “and buying it and making money off of it?”
Odds are you do have some vague awareness of the threat. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that 86% of people online have attempted to rub out some of their digital footprints by clearing caches or encrypting emails, while 55% have taken steps to avoid observation by specific organizations or people. And then on the extreme end of alarm there is Sell, the outlier. “When I used to tell people I boycotted Facebook,” she says, “people used to look at me like I was insane.”
But Sell views the internet from a slightly different vantage point than the average respondent to a tech survey. She’s a longtime organizer of the annual hacker conference DEFCON and she’s the co-founder of r00tz, a not-for-profit organization that teaches schoolchildren how to hack cell phones, text messages and laptop cameras, until their faith in online privacy drains away completely.
“They can learn how to do it in half an hour,” Sell says, “and as soon as you learn how to do those things you quickly change your habits.” The wider public will make the same shift, she suspects, albeit more haltingly and most likely as the hackees. That’s when Wickr swoops in with its sales pitch.
“Security is on a sliding scale of what’s more or less ephemeral,” Sell says. The shorter a message lives, the fewer devices it touches, the fewer the recipients — the harder it is for an outsider to sneak a peek. Wickr spent years designing the most fleeting message on the market. The instant a message leaves the phone it gets scrambled by military-grade encryption technology. Each message has an individual key for decryption. At no point does the message sit alongside thousands of other messages on a server with a master key. Only the sender and recipient have the key and then at the appointed time (6 days or less), kaboom, the message, the key, everything goes up in smoke.
“Everyone else in this market is competing on stickers and emojis,” Sell says, while Wickr competes on security so fiercely that it recently offered a $100,000 bounty to any hacker who could crack its code.
Chest-thumping gestures aside, there is one drawback to this business model. Wickr users can only send messages to other Wickr users, an airtight community of roughly 1 million, which is a tiny fraction of Snapchat’s 30 million users and an infinitesimally tiny fraction of Facebook’s 1.2 billion users. While Sell insists the company has seen “hockey stick” shaped growth, it’s cold comfort to the newcomers who have left most of their social network behind.
Even if their contacts never follow suit, the idea of Wickr, however niche-y, still matters, because it carves out one of the spaces where people separated by distance can confide in one another. And they’re not just the future Anthony Weiners of the world. Whistleblowers, protesters and human rights activists crave privacy just as much as sexters. If they’re assured of it, they can work and organize under conditions of extreme duress.
Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, lists a few of the threats he's encountered in the field, in part because of stunts like hacking North Korea with balloons and USB drives. “Wished death by the govt of Venezuela," he writes via self-destructing text, "called a ‘lapdog’ by Ecuadorian president, a ‘worm’ by the Chechen dictator.”
These threats can have an immediate chilling effect on his communications with activists in the field. “If the person you are corresponding with is careless or has his telephone confiscated or stolen it means the people they are in touch with, all of them, are compromised.”
Chats that leave no trace, however, have shifted the game of cat-and-mouse distinctly in the mouse's favor. Halvorssen writes, “This program permits ANY person to be in touch with YOU, a reporter,” among the most irresponsible loudmouths known to man.
Even if the rest of the world chooses to remain outside of Wickr’s walled city on a hill, it at least remains an outlet for those who crave privacy and an option for those who might one day learn to crave it the hard way.