New app pledges full chat encryption

PHOTO: REUTERS

Wire, launched by former Skype developers, says all content sent on app will be protected

FRANKFURT • A group of former Skype technologists, backed by the co-founder of the messaging platform, has introduced a new version of its own messaging service that promises end-to-end encryption for all conversations, including by video.

Wire, a 50-person start-up mostly made up of engineers, is stepping into a global political debate over encryption that pits privacy against security advocates, epitomised by the stand-off between the US government and Apple.

The company said on Thursday it was adding video calling to a package of private communications services that go beyond existing messaging providers. Rivals such as Facebook's Messenger and WhatsApp, Telegram, Threema and Signal offer encryption on only parts of a message's journey or for a limited set of services, it said.

Wire, which is based in Zug, Switzerland, and stores user communications on its own computers, delivers privacy protections that are always on, even when callers use multiple devices, such as a phone or desktop PC simultaneously.

This comprehensive approach poses fresh challenges to law enforcers, who often seek to exploit gaps in encryption in criminal or security investigations.

Wire, a 50-person start-up mostly made upof engineers, is stepping into a global political debate over encryption that pits privacy against security advocates, epitomised by the stand-off between the US government and Apple.

"We believe Wire is unique in the industry with always-on encryption for all conversation(s), in groups or 1:1, with simultaneous support for multiple devices," Wire chief technology officer Alan Duric said in a statement.

ALWAYS-ON ENCRYPTION

We believe Wire is unique in the
industry with always-on
encryption for all conversation(s),
in groups or 1:1, with simultaneous
support for multiple devices. ’

MR ALAN DURIC, Wire’s chief technology officer

Wire executive chairman Janus Friis said: "Everything is end- to-end encrypted: That means voice and video calls, texts, pictures, graphics - all the content you can send."

The Danish entrepreneur was a co-founder of Skype, released in 2003, then sold to a series of owners and now a unit of Microsoft Corp.

Wire launched the first version of its app late in 2014 to limited notice because it offered encrypted calling and text services similar to a dozen other apps, distinguished mainly by crystal-clear voice quality. The app relies on standard, open-source encryption techniques, which allows outside technical experts to evaluate the security of its products rather than relying on trust.

Wire gets financial backing from Iconical, a group of designers, engineers and executives that act as an alternative to traditional venture capitalists. Mr Friis invests in Wire as part of Iconical. It has not disclosed how much funding it has received.

Wire has so far lagged far behind competing messaging services in attracting active users. WhatsApp has one 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, Mr Friis said in an interview that new user sign-ups were running at about 150,000 to 200,000 per month.

A key selling point for Wire is that it protects users from advertising. Like many start-ups in this area, it is seeking to grow quickly and discover a sustainable business model later. Mr 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.

"There is a growing demand for spaces online that are free from the interference of advertising," Mr Friis said, criticising the way companies such as 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."

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'New app pledges full chat encryption'. Print Edition | Subscribe