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‘Once Your Identity Is Stolen, It’s Worse Than Herpes’

Nico Sell, the “properly paranoid” cofounder of the secure-messaging app Wickr, expounds on Edward Snowden and the importance of electrical tape.

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Nico Sell 
Job: Cofounder of Wickr; chair of the Wickr Foundation
Age: “40-ish”
Residence: “the northern California coast”

You describe yourself as “properly paranoid,” and you wear sunglasses in public to keep photos of your eyes off the Internet. Why do all that?
It’s paranoia with justification. Once you have a chance to hang out with hackers and understand the underlying technology, you realize how easy it is for someone to turn on your computer’s interfacing camera and take pictures of you from anywhere, and how easy it is for them to listen to your text messages or break into your Facebook account. As soon as you realize those things, you can’t think the same way anymore.

Should we be fighting harder for legislation against companies that sell personal information?
That’s a key part of it. Here’s my positioning: Personal information is a hazardous waste, and you’ve got tons of companies hoarding it right now that are not qualified to hold hazardous waste.

Are Edward Snowden’s revelations just the tip of the iceberg?
Yes, definitely. The biggest threat is the data brokers [like Experian], because they’re not as closely regulated and they’re in the business of intensive personal-information retrieval. They collect everything on you that they can, from your prescriptions to your credit card transactions. That’s what they’re in the business of doing.

Some might argue that the public aspect of Facebook can be used for good—like to help cops solve crimes.
Lots of technologies are out there to help law enforcement these days. But as a society, we’ve always believed that there’s still room for privacy. If there were no privacy, there would be no crime, but that’s not the world we want to live in. There are other ways to get criminals than by trampling on one of our most basic human rights.

Privacy issues aside, do you feel that there is still a valid use for Facebook and Google?
They’ve done an amazing job of connecting the world and bringing us all together—it’s just that we need the other half. Sometimes you want to be public, and Facebook is great for that, but sometimes you want to be private. You should not use Facebook when you want to be private—even if you just checked the privacy box—because there are still tons of people who can see your stuff. We need to have both worlds, so that’s the Wickr Foundation’s goal: to build out that second hemisphere. The private web exists a tiny bit out there right now, but it’s nowhere as big as the public web.

You’ve advised people to spread misinformation about themselves online. Is that really what it’s come to?
If you’ve put your birthday and your birth location out on Facebook, or your mother’s maiden name—things that are used in bank security questions—you absolutely need to spread misinformation. Because once your identity is stolen, it’s worse than herpes: You’re going to have it for the rest of your life, and it’s super-painful to deal with. Spreading misinformation can help prevent that. Putting a sticker over your interfacing camera is also something that does not make you go out of your way too much, in exchange for a huge amount of safety. Electrical tape: very high-tech.

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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