Encrypted comms startup Wire lines up premium services

“The paradigms that worked in the past don’t work anymore,” says Alan Duric, chief technology officer of Wire, the private communications app and service that’s backed by Skype co-founder Janus Friis. That’s surely indisputable in an age where voice calls – the long-running revenue stream of telcos – have become free. Another change is that users, concerned by a stream of espionage stories, want to be assured of privacy.

Duric’s fighting talk is understandable. In a world where security threats seem to multiply, morph and change point of origin and direction on a bewildering basis, and where mobile device and data breaches occur all the time, secure messaging has become top of mind for many.

“Wire is about shielding your digital privacy and there’s an obvious need for a secure and private messaging capability,” he says. “Cloud communications is not secure enough.”

Duric, a Croat who works mostly from Berlin for a Swiss-headquartered company, and like other Wire staff steeped in communications know-how, compares the state of data privacy today with what happened to passive smoking in a previous generation.

“Thirty years ago our parents knew there was something wrong with it,” he says. “As soon as awareness grew about effects on children they stopped smoking at home or in the car. With further awareness, they stopped smoking completely. There needs to be way more transparency about how data is kept and for how long.”


Right to privacy

With so much R&D and spending being steered towards search, personalisation and ad networks, personal data has become a seam to be mined by marketers. Often that data is highly sensitive and revealing, especially when understood in context. Wire’s view is that we should be entitled to the same levels of privacy as when we talk and choose to lower our voices, speak only to one person and not another, or shield our mouths, depending on the situation.

As the company says on its website, “In the online world we should be able to communicate directly without passing our private communications through these corporate data mines.”

Founded in 2012, Wire has built an audience of millions of users, although it declines to give a more specific number. That audience has been built on a formula of a minimalist user interface, no advertising or pop-ups and no profiling for selling on data to third parties. Its software is distributed on an open source basis and audio, video and group calls are all free and encrypted end-to-end by default across iOS, MacOS, Windows, Linux, Android and the web. In 2016 it ramped up its release schedule with fortnightly additions that included the addition of features and tools such as file sharing, screen sharing, audio recordings, timed messages, and ‘likes’.

Wire’s model effectively gives the encryption and decryption keys to users so there’s no ability for a government or other agency to access communications on demand from Wire. The company says there is no backdoor either and users can verify the digital identity of other users via fingerprint recognition.

“If anybody asks Wire [to hand over calls] we can’t do it.... the user has the keys,” Duric says. “It’s no different to your personal privacy. It doesn’t have to be like that [allowing third parties to effectively eavesdrop] … it’s your life.”

He sees the end-to-end encryption model becoming an everyday part of our messaging needs today and in the future as more Internet of Things devices, components and systems need to ‘talk’ to each other. After all, a weakness in the control system of a utility will need to report that issue in an even more secure manner than a celebrity sharing a revealing picture with a partner.

In fact, Duric contends, encryption might need to get stronger, hence Wire’s involvement in developing the open source Proteus protocol that protects messages sent over its service. However, that release, that includes elements of Open Whisper Systems’ Signal protocol, led to a brief spat with OWS and its founder Moxie Marlinspike. It’s a complex world and Wire has drafted in third-party agencies to back up its security claims and act as an audit function.


Moral maze

For some, of course, encrypted communications has become a philosophical conundrum. Should the right to privacy not be outweighed by the ability of police forces and other agencies to stop bad guys?

Duric understands the point but wonders aloud whether massive surveillance can truly be effectively applied and notes that there are other ways of finding out what people are doing apart from breaking communications systems.

Competition? Obviously there is WhatsApp, Viber, LINE and the other vast messaging ecosystems they inhabit but the sheer scale and ownership of some of these might deter users keen to defend their privacy.

“The sheer scale of these can deter some users,” Duric says. “There is also a question about business models with many larger messengers being owned by companies that generate revenue through the exploitation of user privacy.”

That still leaves lots of other messaging services of course and currently there’s a lot of attention given to Symphony but, Duric says, that service is focused on the financial sector. (In fact, Symphony prefers to say “highly regulated industries like – my italics - financial services”.) Another big name is, of course, the Signal app, endorsed by Edward Snowden and the often-cited security expert Bruce Schneier. But its maker OWS is supported by community donations and grants and does not charge for use.

Which brings us nicely to the Wire business model. Duric says Wire will continue to grow via an architecture that “scales to millions, then tens of millions, then hundreds of millions”, attracting paying and business customers through premium-priced, currently unspecified, extra bells and whistles. If it is successful with that freemium approach then Wire could be very popular and successful indeed.


Also read:
The sheer scale of WhatsApp


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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