Wickr, one of the wave of secure messaging apps that have risen to prominence in the last year as people question how private their data and communications really are these days (even among “private” apps), is expanding its sights globally. From today, the app — which has had “well over 3 million downloads” says CEO and co-founder Nico Sell — is adding language support for 22 languages on top of English, including Arabic, simple and traditional Chinese, and Russian.
The full list of new languages — they are Arabic, Catalan, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin (Simple Chinese), Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Traditional Chinese, Turkish — speaks to a number of countries (some 196 are covered by this language group), some of which have been very recent political hotspots.
There, citizens protesting against leaders have often been thwarted in their attempts to communicate with each other and the outside world to organise and spread their messages. And in many cases, governments have been explicit about their intentions to monitor private individuals’ conversations — a situation that affects not just those who are treading on sensitive, political ground, but those who simply don’t like the idea of others snooping on them.
While Wickr has seen a lot of takeup already internationally (more on that below), adding in the native language support will help make the app significantly more mainstream. Today, a user in a non-English speaking country would essentially have had to know some English to use the app, even if that person could ultimately type messages in any script that his/her phone supported.
The news is being announced at the same time that Wickr is being named the official app of the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual confab run by the president of the Human Rights Foundation, Thor Halvorssen. It’s the first time that the OFF — whose theme this year is “Defeating Dictators” — has endorsed a particular communication app.
“Human rights defenders and activists living in authoritarian regimes across the globe are under constant surveillance and many of them are targets of persecution and harassment,” he said in a statement. “Wickr has become an essential tool for our at-risk allies. It is my considered judgment that the Wickr team is tirelessly committed to providing a platform safeguarding the right to privacy and freedom of expression.”
There are a couple of reasons behind this.
The first is that it’s a recognition of how Wickr is already being used in critical situations. Nico Sell, Wickr’s co-founder and CEO, tells me that the last several weeks have seen an 800% spike of downloads in Korea as we’ve seen messaging services there take a hit, and a 300% increase in Hong Kong, site of a lot of protesting at the moment. Wickr’s user base is currently split at around 55% U.S. users, 45% international, Sell tells me. “The proportion is changing ever since we introduced Android a year ago,” she says. The Wickr app was launched first on iPhone.
The other connection between Wickr and Halvorssen is more direct. He is a Wickr investor and advisor who participated in the company’s $9 million Series A alongside a number of other very prominent names in security and privacy. That earlier round was led by Alsop Louie Partners, a VC that has backed companies that include Twitch and Justin.tv but also has honed in on companies tackling security and privacy, raising a $100 million fund for the purpose.
The biggest countries for Wickr usage today outside the U.S. are Brazil and Canada, Sell says. While Canada, so close to the U.S. in language and much more, may not seem like much of a surprise, why Brazil? “Ever since they passed their internet bill of rights our numbers there have skyrocketed,” Sell says. “Essentially if you read it, it sounds like the Wickr product description with its references to no keys to private data, so I’m not surprised.”
Wickr has altogether raised $39 million in funding, including a $30 million round earlier this year with participation from Dolby Family Ventures, Jim Breyer, Riverwood Capital, Knight Foundation, Juniper Networks and Alsop Louie Partners. Other investors include Gilman Louie, former head of the C.I.A.’s venture arm In-Q-Tel; networking company Juniper; former counterterrorism tsar Richard A. Clarke; Eileen Burbidge of Passion Capital in London and others who are not being made public.
Looking ahead, Wickr is also continuing to push ahead on its business model. Since the app is free and will not be running ads, Sell and co. are looking at white-label deals as one way of monetizing the service. It’s now working with Iusacell in Mexico to build a service for them, and it’s got two other “larger” carriers signed up, as well as gaming companies. “All of them are global and not U.S. based,” Sell says.
As for tackling and working with the bigger tech companies, Sell notes “I am not talking to Facebook or Google, but we are talking to some very big brands, brands that don’t make their money off intensive personal information retrieval.” When I tell her that this reminds me of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s phrasing of Apple’s own approach to privacy, she declines to say whether Wickr is talking with them but does note that “device manufacturers make money off devices, not off of personal information, and they are much more likely partners for us.”