Wickr, secure messaging startup, aims to power encrypted communications for Facebook and financial transactions

HALF MOON BAY, Calif.--Wickr, a secure messaging application that encrypts data from end to end and lets users destroy messages they receive, hopes to be the platform that powers similar messaging capabilities for Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) Messenger, Snapchat and many other messaging services, according to CEO Nico Sell.

Wickr iOS app

Screenshot of Wickr's iOS app. (Source: Wickr)

The startup is already moving in that direction and is partnering with No. 3 Mexican operator Iusacell to power the carrier's branded messaging service, Iusacell Messenger, and is preloaded on all of the carrier's new Android phones. In an interview with FierceWireless here at Re/code's Code/Mobile conference, Sell said that Wickr wants to have a multitude of partnerships and wants to license its technology, noting that brands, movie stars and other companies are going to have their own messaging apps going forward.

"I really think what we have here is the main communication tool everyone is going to use every day," she said.

The free app lets people send text-based messages, pictures, voice, video and self-destructing files. Users can also edit photos with filters and graffiti. Conversations can be tracked or monitored, Sell noted. Messages disappear after six days or users can erase them sooner. Users can delete geolocation and identifying information from media, and users can clean their device completely of deleted files.

Sell, who has helped organize the hacking conference DefCon for the last 15 years, created the app for herself because she was working with researchers, vendors, government officials and journalists to discuss "zero days," or computer vulnerabilities that developers have not had time to address and fix.  She said it would sometimes take three weeks to set up secure communications channels, she said.  Sell partnered with Wickr CTO Robert Statica to create the app.

The app is used by spies, human rights activists and regular consumers alike, Sell said. The big difference between Wickr and other "secret messaging" apps like Lavabit, Sell said, is that "we don't hold any of your private keys. They are generated on your device and your device only." The app uses ECDH521 encryption, which stands for Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman and which the National Security Agency allows for protecting information classified up to "top secret" with 384-bit keys.

Sell said she wanted to create an app that her kids could use throughout the day--something that was both secure and fun. "I came at it from the most high-intensity, hostile situation in the world," she said, and made "something that's by default secure, where you can't make a mistake."  

Sell noted that the company knew governments and hackers would want to come after the company's servers to get access to data, which is why the firm's servers don't hold any secure information. "We're just a transporter of gibberish," she said. "We're not a communications system."

"The only way to design a system around that threat is not to hold" the messages, she said.  

Sell acknowledged that terrorists and other criminals could potentially use Wickr for nefarious ends. "Any good tool is guaranteed to be used by good people and bad people," she said. "And you just have to ask yourself, are we better off as a society for having this tool? Private communications are the most powerful, nonviolent weapon we have." Sell noted that terrorists also use clothing, money and cell phones but society does not ban those.

Sell noted that there are other companies that do encrypted messaging, including Silent Circle, which she deemed "very difficult to use, and not at all fun."

Sell said she knows Silent Circle co-founders Phil Zimmermann and Jon Callas and "would trust them with my privacy and security any day" but that Silent Circle is "not something my kids would ever use 100 times day."

The Wickr app is available on iOS and Android. Sell said recently the app has had "well over 3 million downloads" and it recently added language support for 22 languages on top of English, including Arabic, Chinese and Russian.

Sell said that the company is going to add in-app purchases later this year, including messages that live longer than six days, more attachment types, support for larger files. She said Wickr only expects the top 4 percent of users to pay for premium services, such as daily video conferencing. She said the average user interacts the app 50 times per day.

Sell envisions companies like Whisper, Snapchat and WhatsApp as future clients. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange already is a client (and an investor) and Sell said she envisions Wickr running the entire world's financial transactions and replacing the SSL protocol. Licensing deals could be revenue sharing models, Sell said, or points on a penny for financial transactions. Different messaging apps will offer varying opportunities for revenue sharing, as some will stream media and some will have pictures or stickers. Sell also said that Wickr could be used to secure smart home monitoring, health monitoring and financial trades. "We can try lots of different ways of making money," she said.

Wickr operates in 196 countries, Sell said, adding that it works in "pretty much everywhere but Chad" and countries where it is illegal to export encryption like North Korea and Cuba.

Wickr was started in 2011, launched in 2012 on iOS and on Android in 2013. The company is based in San Francisco, has around 40 employees and has raised almost $40 million in funding so far. The company has a wide range of investors, including Jim Breyer, the founder and CEO of Breyer Capital and partner at Accel Partners; Gilman Louie, co-founder of Alsop Louie Partners and the founder of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm which worked with the Central Intelligence Agency; former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano;  Juniper Networks; the Knight Foundation;  Richard Clarke, a former government cyberterrorism adviser; Amit Yoran, a former In-Q-Tel CEO; and Jerry Dixon, a former cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security.  

For more:
- see this website
- see this TechCrunch article

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