Wickr, a messaging app that launched in 2012, works much like Snapchat, with missives disappearing shortly after they're read. "The difference," says CEO Nico Sell, "is that Snapchat took [some] college kids months to build, and Wickr took 10 very sophisticated crypto experts a year." Wickr's military-grade encryption is so tough that Sell claims there is "no power on earth" that can break it. That's not the only way the app—which has been downloaded more than a million times—protects communications. Here's how Sell built security into Wickr from day one.
Before launching the app, Sell nailed down security—and nothing but security. "We didn't come to market until we knew we had something secure, and now we're adding usability features," she says. "Almost every other consumer product in the world works the opposite way. First they develop the product and all the cool things, and then they backtrack and go, 'Oh, my gosh, we didn't think of how it could be used in ways we didn't intend.' "
Many of Wickr's peers in the messaging world make money by selling user data to advertisers, which Sell says she won't do. Instead, she plans to give Wickr's users the option to purchase premium features, such as secure video chat, and will also license the company's patented security technology to other apps.
Sell decided early on not to collect any unencrypted data or info about Wickr's customers. That means the NSA can't ask for user data, a malicious hacker can't steal it, and investors can't insist it be sold for profit. "I didn't want to have a database that I had to protect," Sell says. "That information eventually gets out."
Some apps use intrusive methods to promote themselves, encouraging users to pester friends on Facebook or even swiping data from address books. To protect privacy, Wickr developed a way to encrypt users' address books so it can match friends without ever knowing who they are.
When consumer interest in privacy exploded after the Prism leak, Wickr was well poised to take advantage. "At least now, somebody told [consumers] what is happening," Sell says of last summer's revelations about NSA spying. "They're aware, and they can make a change going forward."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.