wickr-goldrush

Wickr has raised $30 million from the CME Group, Breyer Capital, and Wargaming to develop its secure messaging applications, which promise to remove metadata from files sent through them and delete messages after a certain amount of time has passed.

This makes the company part of what I’ve taken to calling the post-Snowden gold rush, which has seen numerous companies promise secure communications tools after the whistleblower revealed NSA programs that collect information from just about anyone with a phone. There are snakes in our midst — now it’s up to us to determine if these companies are snake oil salesmen or if their well-funded technologies can actually protect us from all these serpents.

Silent Circle started this gold rush by announcing the Blackphone, an expensive device meant to offer consumers an easy way to encrypt their communications, online activities, and other information. It then raised $30 million from Ross Perot Jr. and Cain Capital to support the development of its secure communications services. Meanwhile, FreedomPop introduced the so-called FreedomPhone targeting at both Bitcoin enthusiasts and paranoid consumers (there’s quite a bit of overlap there).

All of these companies are promising to protect our privacy from the government and anyone else who wants to steal our personal information. Wickr’s messaging platform is supposed to secure our text messages; Silent Circle’s Blackphone is supposed to encrypt everything; and the FreedomPhone can be paid for in Bitcoin to offer a supposedly untraceable payment method. If these companies are to be believed, we will never have to worry about a snake bite again.

The problem is that there are few people outside of the NSA — or even within the agency — who know the full extent of its capabilities. Reports claim that it has worked to compromise various encryption standards, and that it uses all kinds of legal gambits to get its hands on data without any subterfuge. We know only a small portion of its capabilities, and promising security against an unknown force is irresponsible and potentially misleading.

Of course, some protection is better than no protection, and both Wickr and Silent Circle have established themselves as leaders in the consumer security market. The problem is that there is no way of knowing if they’re selling snake oil or bona fide serpent repellent until we’re bitten — at which point it might be too late to rethink the purchase of that $600 smartphone or the decision to invest in Bitcoin so we could get a few megabytes of wireless data on the down low.

Either way, there’s one thing shown by Blackphone, FreedomPhone, and the collective $60 million that Silent Circle and Wickr have raised in the last few months: there’s gold in these hills, and both technology companies and venture capitalists alike are prepping their pickaxes.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]