Can smartphone apps keep the National Security Administration from snooping into your private communications? A few different companies say that they can keep Big Brother out.
With the news that the NSA has the ability to monitor calls, emails, pictures and videos sent through a phone, apps such as Wickr, which creates and sends self-destructing messages for iPhones, say they've seen an increase in the number of people downloading their products.
"We started two years ago and we've seen a huge uptick this week," says company CEO Nico Sell, who organizes the annual Def Con hacker conference. "It seems like there's a news item every two or three weeks that justifies our existence."
Wickr works like a mature version of Snapchat: the app allows users to send text, picture, audio and video messages to other Wickr users. Messages are encrypted on the sender's phone, theoretically before the NSA or anyone else can access it, sent through Wickr's server as "a series of random numbers" and then decrypted on the other end. Senders decide how long the message will live on the other phone – setting a self-destruct time between one second and six days.
Sell says companies such as Verizon, Facebook and Google go wrong by retaining their customers' information. Of course, a huge amount of those companies' revenue is directly related to knowing as much about their customers as possible.
"Verizon's mistake isn't cooperating with the government, their mistake is having this nuclear waste that can be accessed not only by the NSA but by other people who want to make money off of this data," she says. "Companies are keeping all this information in a database and it's all gold. If you have gold in a database, people are going to eventually come in and get it."
Though there's no way of knowing whether the NSA or anyone else has a way of seeing Wickr's messages. Sell claims the messages are safe from the government's eyes. Others aren't so sure. In an interview with Mashable, cryptographer Nadim Kobiessi says that the secret nature into how Wickr works makes security experts uneasy about whether it's actually protecting anyone's data.
"From my perspective, I don't think the company should be telling us, 'Trust us, it's safe,' 'Trust us, it's encrypted,' or 'Trust us, it's audited,'" Kobeissi said, suggesting that the company's source code should be open. "We should be able to verify ourselves."
Other apps such as Seecrypt, which, for $3 a month, allow users to send encrypted text messages and make encrypted calls to other users of the app. Another app, called Silent Circle, was created by former Navy SEALs and is designed for high-level executives.
With new information about the government's spying capabilities coming out seemingly by the hour, it's tough to say whether any of these apps actually protect users' data. Sell says the alternative is trusting your data with service providers who have already proven they're willing to cooperate with the government.
"Any phone call or conversation that isn't on Wickr can be recorded, stored and sold," she says.