Wickr, one of the wave of messaging apps built on the idea of private, encrypted and self-destructing data, has vowed never to make money off its users — with its app remaining free, and user data never getting sold on or accessed by others. But it is starting the process of making money regardless.
As Wickr the app continues to amass more users (between 50,000 and 200,000 new accounts per day, I’ve been told, with the Android version now live alongside the existing iOS app), Wickr the startup is launching a B2B product: a suite of six privacy features that it will sell to other developers who want to add extra security to their apps.
Wickr had hinted at the product earlier this month after it raised a $9 million Series A round, and now, with patents approved on two of the features and pending on eight more, it’s moving ahead with the strategy.
The Security Suite, as Wickr calls it, points both to areas that have been the subject data breaches from a range of apps in recent times, as well as features that have been drawing consumers to certain apps:
- a timer (for apps to implement ephemeral messaging where a user chooses the expiration time);
- a secure friend finder that works without uploading a contact book (to help apps work around the issue of messaging apps getting in trouble by regulators for abusing address books and spamming friends, but give them routes to growing through social networks regardless);
- an anti-spam block list to help users keep junk out of their inboxes;
- a key manager that sends a different key for every message, also known as Perfect Forward Secrecy, “the standard used by spy agencies” according to Wickr;
- an anonymizer that works without UDID (which also meets legal standards for children under 13 to be able to use an app);
- and a shredder that really deletes all traces of a file when you select to delete it.
These are actually all features in the existing Wickr app, but as founder/CEO Nico Sell describes it to me, it will be rare, if ever, that Wickr will agree to sell the full mix to any single customer. More likely, the deals will be on a feature-by-feature basis. “All that secret sauce together is what makes us so special,” she says.
Wickr’s Security Suite taps into the big swing we’ve seen towards services that give users more control over their data and their identity. That trend has been pushed along not just by some consumers’ negative response to more open, social services like Facebook and Twitter, but also larger currents around how groups mine our data for ulterior motives, be they commercial (in the form of big data marketing analysis) or non-commercial (as in the NSA’s and other’s “security” measures).
The material results of that trend range from more casual apps like Secret and Whisper that play on the idea of masking your identity so that you can be more “honest” in your social interactions and confessions, through to messaging behemoths like WhatsApp vowing never to serve you ads and always to respect your private details; and Snapchat, whose ephemeral messaging feature implies whimsy but also the more significant ability to send things that instantly become irretrievable.
Nico Sell, Wickr’s founder and CEO, is something of a data privacy activist as well as entrepreneur. She is a longtime organizer of the DEF CON security/hacker conference. And she has been very outspoken about casual and not-so-casual approaches to privacy, once referring to Facebook as “the devil,” and another time publicly calling out an FBI agent for approaching her to talk about creating a data backdoor into Wickr.
Sell has vowed not to sell out (see what I did there?) Wickr’s own users, with the basic app remaining free to use, as well as free of any ties to advertising or any data access for commercial or noncommercial purposes.
“We’re one of the only truly anonymous companies out there in the world. We designed it that way, with a zero-knowledge system to defend from hackers,” she tells me. “This is important from a legal aspect. We don’t know who users are, we don’t know what they’re doing.”
Sell tells me that in the time that Wickr has been quietly shopping around its Security Suite, it has had “tons of significant interest” from consumer-focused messaging apps. “We are a small company so are only focused on getting the biggest bang for the buck,” she says.
Sell adds that Wickr is under NDA agreements with some of them currently. She says that Wickr will be open to how the features get implemented — either as “powered by Wickr” or as completely re-skinned, white-label solutions.
As I have said before, while many of these issues are clearly important moral and legal questions for us to consider, it remains to be seen how much longer-term traction these concerns will have with mass-market consumers. To add to that, it will be interesting to see whether tech companies — both startups and large players — act responsibly regardless of what consumers think.
In any case, using just Wickr as a case study, there does appear to be an evolution in what people are thinking about and acting on.
“A year ago we rarely mentioned the word privacy and always led with the ability to offer self-destructing data,” Sell recalls of her pitch to investors, partners and would-be customers. Privacy was always her priority, she says, but “we had to find a way to make privacy ‘cool.’ But since the summer of Snowden, talk of privacy has increased tremendously among the mainstream.
“Before Facebook, it was hard to become a public figure, and it was easy to be private figure. Now that has flipped, and its super easy to be a public figure, and very difficult to be a private one,” she observes. Because that’s now a rare commodity you will see the cool kids following that. I think it will be the trend taking over in the next five years.”
So what’s to come? From the sounds of it, Wickr might eventually try to make a play for the social holy grail: a way of controlling a social graph that links together multiple services.
Indeed, it seems that in the new wave of online communication, if someone can link a person’s identity across the web and apps in a way that doesn’t violate their data or result in an annoying advert for blue jeans following you around for days on end because you happened to go to gap.com, that could really give services like Facebook, creator and king of the social graph, a real run for its money.
“A private social graph — where you want some things to be tracked but not as the default — is something that we are working on,” says Sell. “That’s where we need to go.”