3 Technologies Claiming to Secure Messages in the Post-Snowden Era

Wickr, the Guardian Project and Tor exemplify the digital paranoia that's taking shape in the U.S.

by / July 10, 2014

Privacy-related apps and technology are on the rise in the post-Snowden era of the Internet, and they likely won't slow down as long as revelations about NSA leaks keep popping up in the media.

Reuters reported in February that the mobile security management market was worth $560 million in 2013, but will grow into $1 billion by 2015, according to ABI Research.

Reporter Laurie Segall said in a CNN telecast that Snowden's revelations have caused the encryption industry to skyrocket. She interviewed Nico Sell, CEO of Wickr, a mobile messaging encryption service, who credited Snowden's actions as an eye-opening wake-up call for the general public.

"I think it was the best thing that's ever happened to society. I still don't think we're paranoid enough," Sell said. "To me, the NSA is just the tip of the iceberg, and I'm glad we all know about it right now because we've opened our eyes a little bit."

But the greater threat, in her opinion, are information brokers who sell lists of people categorized by their sensitive data, like rape victims and erectile dysfunction sufferers, for example.

The proliferation of technology like Wickr seems to indicate that Sell is not alone in her feelings. Here are three apps and projects that exemplify the digital paranoia that's taking shape.

  1. Wickr is a free app that offers self-destructing messaging services, and its features include the ability for users to select what messages they want to expire and when. The bulk of its current use covers general, personal messages that users want to keep private, but Sell wants Wickr to protect transactions in the finance industry as well. The app's latest round of funding has garnered $30 million, which is a positive indication of its future.
  2. The Guardian Project, which creates secure, open source message encryption technology, invites developers to produce completely original apps or enhancements to current operating systems that facilitate messaging on mobile devices.
  3. Tor, a service that allows users to browse the Internet anonymously, was originally a worldwide network of servers designed to help people fly under the radar. Today, it's a nonprofit group dedicated to developing online privacy tools.

Developers of such offerings claim that their creations increase protection -- and in some cases complete protection -- from unwanted and unlawful spying. It's up to users to decide which ones are worth the hype, and it's possible that using an app might make someone a target of the very same government spying that's got the public so riled up to begin with. In Tor's case, Lifehacker claims the NSA can tell if someone's using Tor, and Tech Times goes so far as to claim that the NSA may tag a Tor user as an extremist.

Regardless, the public's zeal for technology that encrypts online and mobile communications and data has been steadily growing ever since ex-government contractor Edward Snowden started leaking documents about the NSA's surveillance programs in 2013. He'd been working for the NSA before he took classified documents and revealed their contents to major news outlets without the agency's knowledge.

Snowden fled the United States to avoid facing trial for his actions, but continues to provide the media with successive documentation that casts the NSA in a negative light for excessive spying on both its own citizens and foreign nations. He gave data to The Washington Post this summer that confirmed that regular civilians, both American and non-American, greatly outnumbered federally targeted suspects in communications the NSA had intercepted. The NSA's spy net captured ordinary Internet users' baby photos, selfies, medical records, resumes and other data that would seem unnecessary and inappropriate for the government to obtain without reasonable cause.

And a plurality of state and local law enforcement jurisdictions are joining in. USA Today reported in June that police agencies in 33 states are collecting citizen data under the radar as well. They use suitcase-sized technology to track nearby phone data, to the horror of privacy advocates.

Alan Butler of the Electronic Privacy Center told USA Today that this technology should never be used without cause.

"I don't think that these devices should never be used," he told the news outlet, "but at the same time, you should clearly be getting a warrant."

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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