When an FBI agent approached Wickr cofounder Nico Sell “casually” asking if she would add a backdoor to her highly encrypted messaging app, she swiftly scolded and rejected him with a lecture on George Washington and the Bill of Rights.
Today, she’s taking the opportunity to share the experience and drop some knowledge about backdoors and the FBI with Reddit in an “ask me anything” (AMA) at 12 p.m. Pacific today.
Sell is normally not a public speaker. Right after having that conversation with the FBI agent, Sell let me take the only picture of her on Google (see above). But after launching Wickr, Sell wants to educate the public. She’s dealt with the FBI for decades, especially in her work with Def Con, one of the biggest hacker conferences in the world. Which made the interaction with this FBI agent all the more surprising.
“I’m not afraid. I know what I’m doing. I’ve talked to legal staff. I know the FBI well and know the law well,” she told VentureBeat in an interview. “And I think it’s ironic too that I’m an adviser to Crowdstrike.”
Crowdstrike helps companies detect zero-day flaws in their systems and make it a lot more expensive for adversaries to attack. A few security industry heavyweights run the firm, and this includes former FBI executive assistant director Shawn Henry.
Sell explained that this FBI agent seemed perturbed at her RSA presentation of Wickr. Her messaging app does not keep any master encryption keys and cannot see your messages whatsoever. The company promises that you and your intended recipient are the only people who can view your messages (save for situations where your phone has physically been taken from you and someone else is viewing the app). While on stage at RSA, she promised that Wickr would never have a backdoor.
“I think he was trying to intimidate me. He just caught me really off-guard. I feel like he was mad. I mean, I said that I was doing a no-backdoor guarantee in the presentation. That was one of the major messages there,” said Sell.
He caught her walking off stage where an attendant was helping remove her microphone. She went on to ask the agent what office he came from and if this was an official request. After a little more prying, Sell says he simply left.
While being propositioned by the FBI isn’t unique to the RSA conference, many people have decided to boycott the event this year due to a leak that suggested RSA, the encryption company, had accepted a $10 million from the NSA to insert a backdoor into its encryption products. Mikko Hypponen, the chief research offer at F-Secure, is among those boycotting.
Sell said she thought the move was appropriated, but questioned if those boycotting were also boycotting Google, Facebook and Microsoft, “because I bet those guys were also paid for backdoors. It’s hard to boycott everybody who is paid for a backdoor.”
She went on to confirm that Wickr would not be at RSA, but not as a result of the NSA leaks. Rather, RSA just doesn’t seem relevant to Wickr at this point in its lifecycle.
“We don’t speak there, I don’t speak there, I generally don’t attend except for last year was kind of special because we were launching a crypto company so it seemed appropriate,” she said. “But RSA isn’t where we hang out in general. I’m more from the Def Con community.”