clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Nico Sell of Wickr: Privacy Is the New Fame

"I would say I'm properly paranoid."

Asa Mathat

We innocents who post our correct birthday on Facebook, who tweet pictures we took at home, who leave our computer’s front-facing cameras uncovered — we are the weak antelope who will be eaten first.

And that’s what Nico Sell, the privacy-obsessed co-founder of ultra-secure, self-destructing messaging service Wickr, is doing her best to help us realize.

When Sell came onstage today to speak with Re/code’s Liz Gannes at Code/Mobile in Half Moon Bay, Calif., she was wearing large, dark sunglasses, and they stayed on throughout their conversation to block facial-identity software.

An organizer for Defcon, the world’s most infamous annual hacker conference, Sell runs r00tz Asylum, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching children how to become hackers.

“My friends and family deserve the same level of encryption spies are using,” she said.

She opened her purse and presented an array of privacy tools (stickers for the computer camera, an audio plug to prevent eavesdropping through the mic). Gannes asked if Sell was being paranoid.

“I would say I’m properly paranoid,” Sell said, adding that hacking is so easy now that most of the tricks she teaches people are just to prevent very simple attacks and “low-level blackmail.”

She talked about teaching children how to hack phones at r00tz Asylum, and said that the kids are very savvy about cyber security. Teens, she said, actually think that being more hidden online is cool.

“Teenagers are better than anyone at escaping the surveillance state,” Sell said. “The younger generation is reacting to oversharing. Like, skinny jeans to bell bottoms. Anna Wintour said it’s now in vogue to be un-Googlable.”

Privacy is rare, and therefore desirable.

“Everyone used to want to be famous because it was really hard to be famous and, like diamonds, you want to be rare,” Sell said. “Now it’s really hard to be private.”

So, what is her prescription? Well, it’s extreme.

First of all, on Wickr, if you forget your password, you can never come back to your account. No reset for you. Still, it has been downloaded four million times.

This level of security means that “dictators can’t find you, no matter how long they’re searching for you,” she said. “We’re that kind of anonymous.”

Sell said that part of the problem was that people tend to misinterpret how social media should be used.

“Facebook and social media sites are really good for public information — they’re a great marketing tool,” she said. “People are using it in the wrong way. It’s not meant for your kids’ pictures.”

Gannes asked what sort of Band-Aid Sell would put on existing services to make them more secure, in light of a seemingly constant stream of enormous data breaches.

“Find another way to make money than selling lots of personal information, because then you don’t have to hold personal information,” Sell advised the mobile executives in the room. “The only way to truly protect from hackers is to run a zero-knowledge system. Security needs to be built in from the ground up.”

The current system, where free services sell user data, can never be made secure. And users’ most private information is auctioned off for depressingly low prices.

Experian is selling lists of rape victims and erectile sufferers for seven cents apiece,” Sell said. “We need to stop saying, ‘I’ve got nothing to hide.’ Your health records are something we all have to hide.”

But what if I’ve already put my birthday and home address in a thousand places? Is it too late?

Not necessarily.

“Start spreading misinformation,” she said. “Start putting the wrong birth date and the wrong home address.”

“You’ll get a lot of Facebook messages on the wrong day,” Gannes responded.

“Oh, no,” Sell said, sarcastically.

It will be hard to make your life as secure as Sell’s, and even she has had breaches (her daughter accidentally Instagrammed a picture of their family dog, ruining 20 years of work at keeping their home address secret). She has a saying that she picked up in Tahoe, where her family vacations: “How do you protect yourself from a bear? Just run faster than your friends.”

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.