Snap Hires Engineer to Step Up Defense Against Code Copycats

  • Switzerland subsidiary created by Snap to make deals
  • Co-founder of security startup Strong.Codes joins Snap

Is the Timing Right for Snapchat Maker Snap's IPO

When Snap Inc. filed for an initial public offering earlier this month, it said a risk for the company is Facebook Inc.’s Instagram mimicking Snapchat features. Now the startup has tapped the skills of a Swiss engineer with expertise in defending against copycats.

Snap recently hired Laurent Balmelli, an engineer who co-founded the startup Strong.Codes, a maker of tools that obscures software code and makes it harder for competitors to reverse engineer -- a term used to describe taking apart a product to learn how to rebuild it, or copy it. Balmelli registered a Snap e-mail address with the Swiss Chamber of Commerce.

It’s unclear whether Snap acquired Balmelli’s company. In December, following recent expansions in both London and Paris, Snap registered a Swiss subsidiary called Snap Switzerland GmbH that’s based in the same location as Strong.Codes at a tech co-working space in Yverdon-les-Bains northeast of Geneva. According to a regulatory filing, Snap’s Swiss unit will make acquisitions “in the fields of technology and computer security,” as well as "the commercialization of software and computer equipment.”

Balmelli, who was listed as the contact for Snap Switzerland GmbH in a business registry service, declined to comment. Colin Watkins, a spokesman for Snap in London, also declined to comment.

Strong.Codes says its software makes reverse engineering more difficult. The startup was founded by a team of Swiss academics with expertise in cryptography and software protection. “Our goal is to make software piracy much more expensive and complicated,” the company says on its website.

How effective such reverse-engineering tools are in practice is an open question. Companies often adopt similar features without using the same code.

Facebook’s Instagram photo-sharing app has been adopting Snapchat-like features, such as Instagram’s “stories,” which followed Snapchat’s format of letting users broadcast an ongoing diary of short videos and photos that are available to view for only 24 hours. In paperwork for its initial public offering filed this month, Snap said Instagram’s features “largely mimic” its app.

Instagram’s new features may be limiting Snapchat’s growth. Snap said in the IPO filing that user growth has been slowing. Meanwhile, Instagram says it now has 150 million daily users of the feature, nearly matching Snapchat’s total user base.

In December, Snap bought Israel-based Cimagine Media Ltd., which makes augmented reality software. Other acquisitions include the emoji-maker Bitstrips Inc. and the search app Vurb LLC.

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