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Want To Keep Your Messages Private? There's An App For That

Cell phone communication can be hacked, tapped or otherwise tampered with. A new app aims to change that.
Cell phone communication can be hacked, tapped or otherwise tampered with. A new app aims to change that.

It sounds like something out of a spy movie: A new app called Silent Circle allows users to "burn" sensitive messages sent on their phones.

Jon Callas, one of the people who developed the app, says the idea is pretty simple.

"It's a timer. So you can say, one hour; seven minutes. Whatever," Callas tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

It's called a "burn notice." When the time's up, the text is erased from both the sender and receiver's phones.

Callas and his business partners got the idea after hearing an all-too-familiar story: A friend of theirs inadvertently read a text meant for someone else.

"The person who told us this said it made them think that this colleague of theirs was careless with the things that they were talking about in private, and said couldn't you just make it so that when I send someone something, it only lasts for 10 or 15 minutes?" Callas says.

Well, they did it, and for $20 a month, anyone with an iPhone or Android device can subscribe.

The app will also encrypt your calls and texts so they can't be hacked, tapped or otherwise tampered with. It also works on video chats and documents.

Phones hold very personal data, Callas says.

"We do use texts, we use phone calls for very intimate things that we don't want to have to justify later," he says.

But what if the bad guys get the app? Some users may use the app to skirt the authorities, but Callas says that's not a reason to keep the technology from the rest of us.

He says there are too many cases of law-abiding citizens being spied on.

"It happens all the time," he says. "We've seen what went on with the News of the World scandals in the U.K. We've seen things nearly every few weeks where there's some privacy scandal."

Callas says law enforcement authorities are keeping an eye on the app.

"Well, we have gotten phone calls from the FBI, and they said, 'Oh, this is very interesting, how much is it? We'd like to think about subscribing.'"

But outside of doing business, Silent Circle's leadership has emphatically said the company won't turn over any information to law enforcement. Some people think agencies such as the FBI won't ignore this app for long.

"It's the future of communication, so they really have to respond somehow," says Ryan Gallagher, who writes about surveillance and privacy issues for Slate.

He says he thinks governments will view apps like this as a security threat and possibly try to regulate them.

"I do think there will be some sort of backlash against this kind of technology because it's a kind of power struggle," Gallagher says. "And it's about control. And Governments always seem to want more control; they don't want less control."

Right now, the customers are in control. As long as both parties have the app, any data sent between them will be secure. Silent Circle doesn't even have the keys that unlock the communications. Callas says that's by design.

"We are kind of like a department that takes sealed envelopes and delivers them from one to another," he says. "We've made it so that we can't open up the envelopes, only you and your partner can do that."

Silent Circle set up its servers in Canada, a country with more privacy-friendly laws than the U.S. So, for now at least, as long as you're "in the circle," your information is safe.

By the way, if you want to check out Silentcircle.com, their visitor log is burned every seven days. No one will ever know you were there.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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