Nico Sell doesn't work on games, but she's meeting with creators at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week because they all need what she's selling: Security.
Sell is the cofounder and CEO of the encrypted messaging app Wickr, which launched in 2012 as a way to chat with friends without worrying about where your data was going--or what it was being used for. Wickr is fighting above the wave of other, more popular messaging services like WhatsApp and Snapchat with a distinguishing feature: end-to-end encryption. The app caught on the wake of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden's surveillance revelations and Snapchat's security leaks. Now Sell is offering up the security tools she's honed for Wickr to any other company who wants them.
Wickr is bundling its features, including the spy-level background tech that powers its seamless key exchange, and selling the package to other messaging apps, social networks, and game developers--and not just to make money.
"We solve really difficult problems here that could be used by almost every other messaging, gaming, and social media app out there, and it would be a shame not to get that technology to everyone," Sell said. "This is our way to get to billions of users."
Why encryption is still a tough sell
Wickr is targeting some of the biggest apps on the market for its security tools, which are also available à la carte, but Sell is well aware of what a tough sell encryption is and has a pretty good guess as to which companies won't be buying Wickr's products.
"I don't expect Facebook to be interested in this, because they make their money selling personal information," Sell said. "I have a big goal here: To save my kids and everyone's kids from being monetized in that way. Microsoft is one I don't plan on selling to. They are completely opposed to my philosophies."
Security experts like Sell, an organizer for the hacker convention Defcon, and Snowden himself argue that companies like Facebook and Google are more concerned about intercepting personal data to sell advertising than protecting user information by encrypting it from sender to receiver.
Facebook Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan this week told a gathering of press that Facebook has long been capable of rolling out end-to-end encryption to users, but that the technology can be confusing for the average Internet user and gets in the way of communicating. Facebook does support third-party encryption apps on its platform, though.
Sell agrees that a lot of people who are interested in cryptography primarily make tools for themselves, not for regular folks. She's trying to change that with Wickr, which combines top-level security with the novelty of Snapchat-like vanishing messages. She tests all features on her 4-year-old daughter to make sure Wickr's features are as simple as they get.
"We've made all that key management happen in the background so the average consumer doesn't see it or realize it's happening," Sell explained. "We are the first to figure out how to do it so seamlessly, so I understand [Facebook's] position. That wasn't always the case. It drove me crazy long enough that I decided to fix it. If a 4-year-old can use it, anyone can."
That argument might not be convincing enough for Facebook, but you might see end-to-end encryption spread to your other favorite apps if Wickr has its say.