Nico Sell is an entrepreneur and privacy advocate who co-founded Wickr, an app for sending and receiving self-destructing messages. If the description stopped there, you'd probably decry it as a Snapchat knockoff. It's just not. The comparison is laughable.
The gist of the app is similar, however: set the countdown timer on your messages (as short as a few seconds, as long as six days), send them to their recipients, then watch as they blow up with a cool animated explosion on the screen when the clock runs down. You have a degree of control over your communication that you don't really get elsewhere.
The difference is that Wickr is a messaging app designed by professional cryptographers, for professional cryptographers — but it's simple enough for anyone to use. Once you've tried it, there is simply no point in going back to Snapchat.
Wickr's advisory board roster reads like a superhero team devoted entirely to protecting secrets. There's Dan Kaminsky, the often-unnamed hero who found a fatal flaw in the DNS protocol, a fundamental technology that makes the Internet work. There's Cory Doctorow, sci-fi author and blogger at BoingBoing, who is known for his work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. There's even Whit Diffie, co-creator of the ECDH standard and brand-name guy in the world of cryptography.
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As for Sell herself, she's a longtime organizer of the DEF CON Hacking Conference and is CEO and co-founder of r00tz — a nonprofit dedicated to teaching kids how to love being white-hat hackers (those who hack for good — the "bad guys" are called black-hat). She's not afraid to lay into her competitors — talk to her for longer than a minute and she'll have you convinced that Wickr is going to be a big deal in just a matter of time.
"Snapchat is an app for kids. Wickr is an app for spies that kids will use," she said. "We're happy to let Snapchat sit in first place for now while it drops the ball again and again. Users will come looking for something better."
Snapchat is run by (smart and capable) college students who have rarely been out of the spotlight. But Snapchat has already been hacked once, after its management were slow to respond to warnings that it was vulnerable, and its users phone numbers have been published on the web.
Sell, her co-founder, and her advisers are brand-name folks only in the rarefied world of cryptography, and they've created a product that they use themselves.
Further bolstering Wickr's claims of superior privacy: the app doesn't collect your personal information. There's no "sign in with Facebook" option here. Your communications are wrapped in a layer of built-in anonymity because Wickr doesn't care who you are. The app binds your "identity" to your device. A Wickr message sent to you will only ever appear on your phone, but you can only communicate with other Wickr users by way of their Wickr usernames.
Wickr isn't strictly for text communication, by the way — it supports photo, video and audio as well. Sell told us that some municipal governments have been using the app's audio feature to function as an encrypted radio system for emergency workers, local government employees, and the like. This is traditionally a very costly thing to set up, but it's free inside of Wickr.
In fact, all this cool functionality described happens totally for free. So how does it make money? Sell addressed this in a Q&A on Reddit, saying, "Our plan is for millions, then billions to use our base service for free. We expect our power users, the top 3%, to pay for our premium in-app purchases. We have no personal information to sell and will not do ads."
In-app purchases will launch this year. Sell and company are at work on "private calling and video calling, secure mail, conference calling, and group video chat." It remains to be seen if this is a viable business model, of course, but the Wickr team doesn't seem to be afraid of some experimentation.
And it will indeed have to experiment. Wickr faces a conversion problem. How will it get people to use a superior product with Snapchat sitting in first place with so much spotlight on it?
"It's gotta work and be cool," Sell said.
We've got little doubt that Wickr is ultimately destined for the big time. While everyone's busy gawking at Snapchat's high-profile privacy fails, its gargantuan $3 billion valuation, and the contentious lawsuit involving an ousted co-founder, the Wickr team is patiently biding its time, adding features and security, building a service that just makes Snapchat look silly.
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