A Privacy App That Ensures Personal Data Really Disappears

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This story appears in the June 2013 issue of . Subscribe »

Nietzsche once suggested, "Without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all." Too bad the internet has perfect memory.

Nico Sell and her co-founders at Wickr are on a mission to change that. In March 2011 they began developing an app that would give users the ability to send "self-destructing" pictures, video, audio and text messages securely and anonymously. "No one else is doing privacy at this level, and I think we're the only ones who could have done it," Sell says. Files are never stored; they are completely overridden, cleared of metadata and encrypted with the same security technology employed by the National Security Agency. The free version allows users to send messages that can be kept for up to five days before self-destructing.

The team includes some of the nation's top security experts. Brought together by Jerry Dixon, who served as director of cyber security for the Department of Homeland Security, the San Francisco-based group comprises Sell, a security expert and longtime organizer of the annual Defcon hacker convention; a former defense contractor; a former state forensic investigator; and the director of New Jersey Institute of Technology's Center for Information Protection.

Wickr hit the App Store in June 2012 (at press time, an Android version was forthcoming). It is now the leading privacy app in 32 countries; what's more, it's the top free social app in Greece, Singapore, Botswana and South Africa--ahead of Facebook and Twitter. The company is rolling out several new pro features this year, including heightened control over how long data can be kept and a plan that entices power users to pay about $40 a year for unlimited international calling and texting.

The idea is to initially convert people from other messaging and texting platforms, then give them the ability to post to social media sites like Facebook and Instagram securely, without their data being stored--and one day to facilitate private e-mails and phone calls. Unlike rival service Snapchat, which is aimed at teens and college students, Wickr promotes more serious use; it's a popular choice among doctors, politicians, freedom fighters, hackers and journalists. "Here in the States, the self-destructing part is what's driving people, but around the world, it's popular in high-tension areas. We have thousands of users in Russia and China, and they're logging more and more time on it every day," Sell says. "We believe ephemeral data is the future, and some day every app will have it."

And surely many a politician busted by incriminating photographs wishes that future had come a little bit sooner.

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