Cat photos are some of the most popular images on the web today, and encrypted messaging service Wickr is tapping into that, along with one of the classic tricks of the spy trade called steganography, to mark its first foray into the wider world of social networking. It has come up with a way to post photos on Facebook without directly sharing the photo on (or with) Facebook itself, by “hiding” them behind pictures of cute kitties.
The Facebook integration is part of a new photo feed that Wickr is adding to its own messaging app. Wickr was launched last year, marketing itself as an encrypted messaging service, more private than sharing-friendly competitors like Facebook and WhatsApp. Its entry into the market was timely, coming at the same time that people were becoming more aware of how their data was being accessed by government groups like the NSA, as well as getting appropriated for other more commercially-focused uses.
Modelled on Instagram, the new photo feed is called the Wickr Timed Feed — shortened to WTF (yes, really), and it lets you post pictures that live in the feed for 24 hours, to up to 151 users.
Nico Sell, the CEO and co-founder of Wickr (which has raised nearly $40m in funding), tells me that to date Wickr had 5 million downloads. It sees significant bumps in downloads and usage every time that privacy issues come up in the media — for example, stories about how the UK is considering a way to ban or access all messaging apps; or when an app like Snapchat gets breached. Nevertheless, she thinks this new service could be Wickr’s biggest development yet:
“This is the biggest announcement we’ve made since starting the company,” she says of the product that looks “very much like Instagram.” It will be available on an app update for iOS devices first, coming to other platforms over time.
The service works like this: on Wickr, you can share your photos with up to 151 friends by tapping the WTF tab, creating a photo, customizing it, and then choosing where to place the picture (in a specific feed and/or on Facebook).
When you cross-post a picture to Facebook, it comes up in Friends’ feeds as a cat picture.
Behind the cat picture is essentially an encoded link through to the photo as presented on Wickr. Those who are your friends on the app can then see the picture. Those who are not are given a prompt to download it. Your Facebook photo feed — and the pictures that Facebook in turn “owns” — is limited to pictures of cats. For now, the service does not work retroactively on older pictures, but Sell says that they “are working on it.”
Why cats? In part, this is a wink to the technology that Wickr is using for the service. Sell tells me that steganographers have focused on “hiding” information online for years behind two main genres of pictures, those of cats and NSFW, porn pics. For obvious reasons, Wickr chose to focus on the former of these.
Moreover, cat pictures are already everywhere, adding to the “wallpaper”, unassuming effect that Wickr is going for here.
Wickr quotes one stat from CBS that in 2013, 15% of all traffic online was cat-related. In 2014, it says that 3.8 million pictures were shared each day — and only 25% of them were of Grumpy Cat, apparently. “According to a 2012 Hiroshima University study, looking at cat photos makes people more productive and the cuteness triggers positive emotion – an added bonus!” (Who said encrypted apps developers and privacy advocates lacked a sense of humor?)
As a mark of just how viral cat stuff can get, Wickr itself posted a video on YouTube a couple of weeks ago to subtly promote its service. With very little effort, “Big Data – ‘Dangerous (feat. Joywave)’ [Big Kitty Version]” has already had over 124,000 views.
As with the rest of the Wickr service, there are no plans to add in advertising or to charge for this service. There will be most likely other features added down the road that will be charged, Sell says.
“Cats are more popular, but dogs can be an in-app purchase,” Sell says. She also notes that secure photo storage may be another, more likely addition to a list of paid, additional services.
Over time the other plan is to integrate with further social networks like Tumblr and Twitter. But first, Wickr will have to see how the integration fares with Facebook. Sell tells me that while Facebook gave the company permission to use its API, she doesn’t know how the social network will react when they see how it’s being used.
“We’re not expeting to get cut off, but even if we do it could work out like the David Cameron news,” she said, referring to the UK Prime Minister’s comments on accessing messaging apps. “It will just cause more to downloads for our app.”
More to the point, she also thinks this could work in Facebook’s favor. “We’ll make Facebook cool again!” she exclaims enthusiastically.
Notably, the spark of inspiration that got Wickr to create the photo app in the first place came from Sell’s teenage daughter. Sell was thinking of what kind of service would give her offspring a more private, but also more catchy, Facebook experience. “She doesn’t use Facebook anymore,” Sell says. “She uses tumblr. This could bring her and other kids back there.”
A demo of how the service works below: