In early September, Bruce Levenson, owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, announced that he would sell the team after self-reporting a racist email he had sent in 2012.
The Hawks are valued at over $400 million. That’s a strong tribute to the power of the written word.
Or take the case of the missent email. This past July, a Goldman Sachs employee accidentally typed “gmail” instead of “gs” into address bar and sent confidential information to a Gmail random account. The brokerage house then sued to have that email deleted, which Google said it would only do with a court order.
It seems fair that a racist email from a powerful sports figure should be disclosed or maybe even that misspent emails stay where they land. But after Snowden’s revelations, it also seems likely that even innocent text communications can be stored and sifted. Wouldn’t be nice if, in classic Mission Impossible fashion, emails could actually self-destruct?
A handful of companies are trying to fleeting email a reality.
Normal email accounts–Gmail, Yahoo!, etc.–can’t add this feature because of the way Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) works. (In 2009, Gmail debuted an “undo send” feature but it doesn’t actually yank email back–it just adds five seconds before it sends.) To create truly disposable messaging, you need to build it from the ground up. “We decided we wanted to make crypto that people would use 100 times a day, and crypto that exceeds the NSA’s top-secret encryption technology,” says Nico Sell, the CEO of a company called Wickr.
Sell is a DefCon vet and white-hat hacker notorious for her secrecy–she refuses to be photographed on camera without sunglasses, which mess with facial-recognition software, and most details of her life are a mystery, from where she lives to the names of her husband and daughters to whether her “Nico Sell” is even her real name. She founded Wickr in 2011 after 10 years of trying to get other companies to use her encryption technology. Now, she provides an app that uses “seamless key management” to allow the anonymous sending and receiving of messages that are timed to self-destruct and, because they are stored exclusively on devices, cannot be accessed from a cloud or server.
“Wickr is processing millions of messages a day, which is more top-secret messages than the Internet has ever seen,” she says. “Which is really great too, because a lot of what we’re doing is working with human rights activists, and you’ve got tons of great cover traffic–I’m pushing people to encrypt as much as they can, it helps to control the surveillance state and give power to the people.”
Matching her background, Sell’s rhetoric and behavior is couched in the philosophies of activists–she famously refused to allow the FBI a backdoor into Wickr. But she also believes that Wickr is the best messaging app, period, and she sees Facebook, Skype, Whatsapp, and Snapchat as its competition. Eventually, the company will move beyond even that: Sell wants to use Wickr’s tech to facilitate financial-industry and peer-to-peer transactions securely and secretly. With a business model built on these trades, as well as premium content and licensing, Wickr also has no need for ads, which means no need for any user data.
While Wickr might be the most ambitious and well-known of the secure messaging apps, it’s far from the only one. Telegram, an Android-only app that originated out of Russia, is a fast-growing service that also provides encryption and self-destruct options, though, unlike Wickr’s, those features aren’t always activated. And Gliph combines messaging with completely secure bitcoin payments, making it an attractive service for a certain kind of user–the kind that cares enough to use bitcoin.
Gliph allows users to send messages across platforms, including the web browser and desktops. This flexibility comes with a caveat–instead of local encryption, like Wickr and Telegram, Gliph uses server-side encryption–but founder and CEO Rob Banagale believes that the trade-off is more than worth it in terms of improving the user experience.
“We host the conversations, so you can lose your phone and still pick up the conversation on the web and on somebody else’s phone by logging in,” Banagale says. “Another key aspect of what we have is you can delete messages. If you delete a message in Gliph, it will delete it on the other side as well. It’s a complete deletion, no backup.”
Like Wickr, Gliph is ad-free, and it protects user details via messaging as well as a service called cloaked email, which hides email addresses behind a pseudonym. Regardless of which app you opt for–and there are others–their rise is both a reaction to current events as well as a curious harbinger of what’s to come in communication. Sell says that Wickr is a tool, and like all tools, it can be used by both good people and bad people. But in her eyes, that doesn’t change the need for the tool itself.
“We believe in power to the people,” Sell says. “We really think that no matter the frontier, if we can get freedom of communications and freedom of information to everyone around the world, then we can have significant change, in a good way.”
It also means that, if Levenson’s email had self-destructed, he’d still be the owner of the Hawks. Or maybe the next time an intern decides to accidentally reply instead of forward an email–maybe the whole office won’t get it.