On top-secret messaging, competing against viral growth apps, and protecting one's identity.
FORTUNE — Nico Sell takes security more seriously than most. She is the co-founder and CEO of a mobile application called Wickr, which claims to be a “self-destructing, secure, private, anonymous” means of messaging text, images, and audio between people.
The app encrypts data from start to finish, so any messages that are shared through Wickr are never saved anywhere permanently and self-destruct in a matter of seconds or days, depending on the user’s preference. If a government were to approach Wickr and ask for records of conversations, Sell and her colleagues would be unable to hand them over, because the records aren’t stored.
Sell has staunchly advocated for security education. She runs a white-hat hacking camp for children and teenagers at the Def Con conference in Las Vegas every year, and she likes to speak to media about security — although she always wears sunglasses on camera, just in case she needs to confuse facial recognition software.
Sell — who is in her early 40s and is from an undisclosed location in the Rocky Mountains — holds a bachelor’s degree in government (with a focus on nuclear strategy) from Dartmouth. She spoke with Fortune.
1. Who in technology do you admire most? Why?
Whit Diffie. Whit I admire because not only did he develop the encryption protocol that all of us use, but he’s the one that developed the algorithm ECDH-521, which stands for Elliptical Curve Diffie-Hellman 521. It’s one of the core protocols that all of us in security depend on daily. So he’s a genius, but he’s also the most stylish man that I’ve ever met. He wears a three-piece bespoke suit and has long white hair and a white beard. I think that style carries over into everything that he does.
3. Which area of technology excites you most?
Crypto. It’s kind of like rocket science; it’s where all the smartest math geeks are attracted. In order to understand crypto, you also have to understand humans and society because it’s about exchanging information. It goes back throughout history to today, like with ECDH-521. It’s the new curve that we’re all using. It allows you to have a different key for every message that you send. That’s applied to so many things out there. Wickr switched to it a year ago. It’s the standard for NSA top secret communications. So [Diffie] is bridging the gap between feds and freedom fighters.
4. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?
Go to Def Con and start by reading everything on their site and following all of their speakers. It’s generally the most cutting-edge security research in the world, and very comprehensive. It’s how I learned everything that I know. For instance, in 2009, we learned how to break into a lawful intercept machine by one of the hackers. My first question at the time was, “What’s a lawful intercept machine?” It’s the wire-tapping that law enforcement uses to listen to phone calls. As soon as we learned how to break into it, it became very clear to me that a back door for the good guys can always mean a back door for the bad guys. It was pivotal to where I am now and being able to deal with law enforcement properly.
5. What is the best advice you ever received?
Don’t call anyone unless you’re doing them a favor.
6. What’s the next big project you want to tackle?
We’re sending over a million top-secret messages a day, which is fantastic for top-secret messages, but I’d like for Wickr to be used by billions of people every day for every message and call to their loved ones and co-workers. My co-founders and I were brought together by the very strong belief that private correspondence is a universal human right and the most important human right for the next century. In order to have a strong social system, you must have strong social discourse. And that was what George Washington felt strongly about when he started the United States. Those ideals are very important.
We generally have that freedom in the U.S. even though we complain that we are living in an Orwellian state. But there are places all over the world that are even more tightly controlled than here. Everywhere, no matter where you live, you deserve the right to private correspondence. We want to give everyone that right for free, especially as billions more come online.
7. What challenges are facing your business right now?
Our biggest challenge is that we’re competing against viral growth apps. Viral growth apps dominate by siphoning down your address book and SMS history, and then spamming all your friends with a tricky message that gets them to download the app which does cause tremendous growth. But it’s an improper way to treat users. I refuse to siphon down everyone’s address book because I don’t want to be responsible for that information, which I know can be breached. So was up to us to figure out how our users remain anonymous to us but connect to each other. It took us a year and a half to develop what I call “bacterial growth,” which is not quite as aggressive as viral growth, but I think it’s beneficial to society. Users will be more loyal because we’re treating their data well.
8. What was the most important thing you learned in school?
It was probably how not to go to school. I pretty much taught myself. I had a deal with my principal that as long as I got straight A’s I could go when I wanted to. My parents helped me negotiate that. At a very young age, I learned how to get around the rules. If you do what needs to be done, the rules can be broken. So I’ve run my company the same way.
We don’t make our employees come into the office nine-to-five. You can work from the Bahamas. I don’t care what you’re doing, as long as you get your work done. That’s the only thing that counts. Assuming you’re an A player and a genius, then I’m going to treat you like an adult, and you’re in charge of yourself. I don’t think people realize that you can get around the rules, but only if you get straight A’s.
The irony about that is that I’m always working. There’s a fine line between freedom and work and making your own boundaries instead of having someone else define them.
9. What was the last book you read?
I’m just finishing 1984. I hadn’t read it in 20 years. It’s had a huge impact on the entire hacker culture, but it being the 30-year anniversary of it and all, I’m reading it again. I’m at the torture scenes, which are really depressing. But as I read it, it’s so amazing to me because we complain about living in an Orwellian state, but one of the things I’m working on right now is working with a bunch of dissidents from North Korea who are fighting who I consider to be the worst dictator of our time. The situations over there are worse than the book.
The interesting thing about books is that after we launched Wickr, the FBI started accessing my mom’s online book records for what she was checking out at the library. I hadn’t told my mom about my issues with the FBI because I was trying not to worry her, but she told me, “It’s weird, I just got this notice that the federal government requested all of the books I’ve been checking out. Why would they do that? What’s going on?” She said that she had been reading a lot of spy books lately. I asked some librarians about it later, and they said that when looking at books, the online portion is not protected. If you check out books in person, you’re fine, but if you reserve them online to check out, that information can be accessed.
10. What is one piece of technology you can’t live without?
Google Maps, even though I hate it. You’ll notice that I trash Facebook and many other sites, but I don’t bad-mouth Google even though they collect more information on us than anyone. I still use their maps because I have to. There’s nothing better.
I wish someone would develop an anonymous version. So what I do to combat that issue is I feed it misinformation all the time, which might include a wrong address slightly. A lot of times I put my phone in a faraday cage [which blocks cell phone signals] so that it’s not tracking me at all times.
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