Amid Apple's FBI Fight, App Developers Are Ramping Up Encryption

U.S. Government Strikes Back Against Apple
  • Messaging app backed by Skype co-founder adds video encryption
  • Business sees value in private, advertising-free platforms

While Apple fights the demands of the FBI over encrypted iPhone data, the companies that help users communicate privately between such devices are working hard to dramatically increase their methods of security.

Wire, a messaging app backed by Skype co-founder Janus Friis, is the latest to add end-to-end encryption and secure video communication to its service, the company announced today, as it tries to gain traction against rival communications platforms.

The service, which rolled out in December 2014, has tried to distinguish itself with a sleek, uncluttered design and its ability to operate on any device, desktop to mobile, and across all major operating systems.

But Wire has so far lagged far behind competing messaging services in attracting active users. WhatsApp has 1 billion active monthly users, Kik has 200 million, and Telegram recently hit its 100 million milestone. Snapchat claims 100 million active daily users. While Wire does not report its monthly user figures, Friis, who serves as Wire’s executive chairman, said in an interview that new user sign-ups were running at about 150,000 to 200,000 per month.

Offering video calls and end-to-end encryption, both already available on other messaging platforms, is one way to narrow that gap, although Friis said Wire was not adding them just to keep up with the competition. "Video calls have been the top requested feature from our users," Friis said. "It is also something that takes quite a lot of engineering effort to get right across many platforms."

Modern Age

In an interview at his office in London’s Mayfair -- where a massive sculpture of a handgun mounted with a riding saddle by the Hungarian artist Kata Legardy confronts visitors the moment they step off the elevators -- Friis said that Wire was not seeking to address a particular shortcoming in existing messaging platforms.

"That’s not the way we look at things," he said. "What we thought is let’s create something that is completely created for the modern age, for mobile devices with big screens. A simple to use app that is beautifully designed but also respects the privacy of your communication, but is not a specialized app."

Wire seems in many ways to be following a similar marketing playbook to that used by Telegram, which has grown rapidly since its debut in 2013. Telegram touts its encryption, appealing to users increasingly concerned about government surveillance. It also presented itself as a kind of anti-business, with its founder, Pavel Durov, saying he had no plans to monetize the platform and would never sell advertising on it.

Similarly, Friis said Wire would never create an advertising-based business model. Instead, he said, the platform might charge for certain premium services in the future.

Targeted Advertising

Wire is presenting encryption as a way to safeguard communications not only from the prying eyes of government spies, but also as a way to shield personal information from businesses that want to mine messaging traffic to send users targeted advertising. "There is a growing demand for spaces online that are free from the interference of advertising," Friis said, criticizing the way companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google use search terms to sell advertising. "Everything you do, especially when it’s your private, personal, professional communication, does not have to be tracked."

Headquartered in Zug, Switzerland, Wire’s main development team -- about 50 people, according to Friis -- is based in Berlin. Wire’s co-founders all have deep tech experience, with chief executive officer Jonathan Christensen and lead designer Priidu Zilmer, both alumni of Skype, and chief technology officer Alan Duric is a veteran of Norwegian voice-of-Internet pioneer Telio. The company has also made key hires from Apple, Microsoft and Nokia.

For its end-to-end encryption model, Wire is using standard encryption protocols: Real-Time Transport Protocol (RTP) for video and voice calls and the Axolotl protocol for messaging traffic. This differentiates it from Telegram, which developed an encryption standard of its own, called MTProto, that has since been criticized as potentially unreliable by cybersecurity researchers.

Wire also says that it’s unique among messaging platforms in automatically encrypting all its communications, including voice and video calls, not just text.

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