Technology
5:55 am
Tue December 4, 2012

Making Permanent Digital Records Not So Permanent

Originally published on Tue December 4, 2012 4:11 pm

The Internet is forever — and so are texts, tweets and Facebook updates — but a startup has big ambitions to bring privacy and impermanence to online communication. The company, called Wickr, lets users decide how long a message lives.

The people behind Wickr found inspiration in 1960s-era TV and messages that self-destructed. "I think everybody who's watched Mission Impossible has always wanted self-destructing messages," says co-founder Nico Sell.

Its app works like this: You create a text — picture, voice or video — and you set a time for how long you want that message to live. Then you send it to the other person. The timer starts the second they open the message.

When the timer hits zero — Boom! — the message self-destructs. There is no puff of smoke, but all digital traces of that communication are gone. The app is free. Wickr plans eventually to make money by charging for a version with a few more features, but the basic security will always be the same.

"We've taken some really complex encryption technologies and utilized the mobile phone to make it easy for everybody to use at the touch of a button," Sell says.

The message you send on Wickr can last for as little as a second or as long as six days. Only the recipient's device can read it, and you, the sender, control how long that one single copy will last.

Fred Cate, a law professor and director of the Center of Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, says everything we do, "especially with a device like a cellphone, is going to create a digital record."

"That record will be held by a third party, and that third party will keep that record forever — for my lifetime and beyond," Cate says.

That is a historic change, he says. Courts give you very limited privacy protections if you share anything about yourself with a third party. The cost of storing data — for those third parties that collect it — has fallen to almost nothing, and companies like Facebook and Google have discovered there are fortunes to be had by mining information they collect about all of us.

That, says Cate, gives them an enormous incentive to build detailed digital profiles of virtually everyone. And we can't delete them.

"There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about this idea that you ought to be able to sort of overcome your past — you shouldn't be saddled with the digital records that you created when you were 14 and 15," Cate says. "We've all sent intemperate emails we wish would have disappeared."

But Cate says we also have come to rely on our own digital permanent records in hundreds of little ways. Just ask yourself: When was the last time you looked up an old email in your inbox?

The Wickr app, says Sell, puts users in control of their own communication — not companies or governments.

"We should have built it this way from the ground up in the beginning," she says. "But we didn't, so we're going to change it now."

Wickr's founders hope you'll eventually be able to use their app on top of other platforms like email or even to make phone calls. And Sell says one day she wants to leave posts on Facebook that will self-destruct.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The pope's tweets, your tweets, Facebook status updates, once they're out there for the world to see there's not much that can be done about it. If you have kids old enough to type, chances are you have had some kind of conversation about the digital trails they will leave behind. And this is a lesson plenty of grown-ups have a hard time internalizing. Countless members of Congress, football players, even the nation's former top spy, David Petraeus; so many have been ensnared in digital scandals.

Today's business bottom line takes us to the story of a little startup with big ambitions to bring privacy and impermanence back to online communication.

Here's NPR's Steve Henn.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: When it came to inspiration for her latest high tech startup, Nico Sell turned to '60s-era TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "MISSION IMPOSSIBLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This tape will self destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.

NICO SELL: I think everybody who's watched "Mission Impossible" has always wanted self-destructing messages.

HENN: Sell is the co-founder of a company called Wickr. Its app works like this.

SELL: You can a send text, picture, voice or video.

HENN: And then you set a time...

SELL: For how long you want that message to live. And then you send it to the other person. The timer starts the second that they open the message.

HENN: When the timer hit zero, boom, the message self-destructs. Unfortunately there's no puff of smoke but all the digital traces of that communication are gone.

The app is free. Eventually Wickr plans to make money by charging for version with a few more features, but the basic security will always be the same.

SELL: We have taken some really complex encryption technologies and utilized the mobile phone, to make it easy for everybody to use at the touch of a button.

HENN: The messages you send on Wickr can last for as little as a second or as long as six days. Only the recipient's device can read it. And you, the sender, control how long that one single copy will last.

Fred Cate is a law professor and director of the Center of Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University. Right now, he says...

FRED CATE: Everything you do, especially with a device like a cell phone, is going to create a digital record. That record will be held by a third party. And that third party will keep that record forever - for my lifetime and beyond.

HENN: Cate says that is a historic change. Courts give you very limited privacy protections if you share anything about yourself with a third party. They cost of storing data for those third parties that collect it has fallen to almost nothing. And companies like Facebook and Google have discovered there are fortunes to be had by mining information they collect about all of us.

That, says Cate, gives them an enormous incentive to build detailed digital profiles of virtually everyone. And we can't delete it.

CATE: You know, there has been a lot of discussion in recent years about this idea that you ought to be able to sort of overcome your past. You shouldn't be saddled with the digital records that you created when you were 14 and 15. We've all sent intemperate emails we wish would have disappeared.

HENN: But Cate says we've also come to rely on our own digital permanent records in hundreds of little ways. Just ask yourself when was the last time you've looked up an old email in your in box.

Nico Sell, Wicker's co-founder, says her app puts users in control of their own communication, not companies or governments.

SELL: We should have built it this way from the beginning from the ground up in the beginning. But we didn't, so we are going to change it now.

HENN: Eventually Wickr's founders hope that you'll be able to use their app on top of other platforms, like email or even to make phone calls. And Sell says one day she wants to leave posts on Facebook that will self-destruct.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "MISSION IMPOSSIBLE")

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.