Unbreakable ­“modcomms”

#e-mail-flood  #growth  #securecommunication

Text, chat, phone, video, file sharing: a Zug-based company, led by Morten Brøgger, enables all these functions in just one app with two remarkable USPs: iron-clad privacy, and 100 per cent availability. It also has two remarkable taboos: no advertising, no selling of user data.

Text: Eric Johnson | Photos: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Homo digitalis – June 2018

Morten Brøgger’s 14-year-old son has 15,000+ unread emails.

And he’s proud of it – he doesn’t want to read them. “It’s the way of millennials,” says the 40-something Dane of his Copenhagen-based progeny, adding that while 90 per cent of teenagers use social media, only 6 per cent of them write emails. “Their communications are super short and to the point, without all the intros and closings and trappings of email. It’s a different way of communicating: it’s not correspondence, it’s a conversation.”

Today’s teens are of course tomorrow’s workforce, and already their text, tweet, chat, share habits are standard for many elders. Moreover, digital trends no longer start in the office and spread to the home, but vice versa. Private consumers drive the market for apps. If those succeed in personal usage, they then find their way into business.

“E-mail is correspondence, while social media is a conversation.”

So why don’t businesses simply let their staff replicate Brøgger junior’s communication methods? Because they have something to lose: namely privacy and security. Public networks are well and good for teens with little or nothing to hide. Hey, if one’s secrets are favourite rappers or cosmetics or football clubs, exposing them is little threat: these are hardly secrets in the first place. Business users, however, do have things to hide, sometimes a lot. Confidentiality is usually desired and often required. When it’s breached – just ask Swisscom, FedEx, Pizza Hut and so many others who’ve borne the brunt of it – there can be losses of money, customers and reputation, not to mention legal penalties and fines.

This was the conundrum that Brøgger and colleagues set out to solve: how to communicate most modernly, yet also most privately. Their answer is a software application aimed at organisations (but also available to individuals) called Wire.

In the two decades since graduating from Aarhus University in his home country of Denmark, Morten Brøgger has climbed steeply in the world of IT/communications. At Wire Swiss, he’s already in his third stint as a CEO, after having held the same post at collaboration-software provider Huddle and before that at roaming-clearing agent Starhome Mach. He’s a genuine globetrotter, splitting his time about half and half between Europe and California’s Silicon Valley. Brøgger is no stranger to Switzerland: he lived here in 2005 to 2006 when he was head of telecom operator Sunrise’s Fixnet division, and he now regularly visits Wire’s head office in Zug. Digitally, he practises what he preaches, wielding two smartphones (one with international roaming, so his children can phone him without extra cost to them) plus a desktop PC, and using his own product as his go-to app. Does he ever tire of tech? Not really, but he admits to shutting down the devices now and then, especially at bedtime and on airplanes.

Escape from “email hell”

“Enterprises have to accept that their employees will want to use the latest communications tools,” Brøgger notes. “And those employees have to accept that those tools must be secure.” To that end, he says: “Wire has taken security to a whole new level.”

Here’s the old way: conventional networks run through central nodes or servers that are protected by firewalls. If the firewall is cracked or hacked, all information is at risk. Data thieves can run rampant. Wire’s new way is to build a network with “distributed encryption”. There is no central node or server, data flows are peer-to-peer. Rather than encrypting centrally, the ciphering is done locally – on every device connected to the network. And each encryption key is updated with every single message to that device. “Each device is its own fortress,” Brøgger explains. Even if somebody does hack it, the hacker can access only the latest message – that’s all. Hacking doesn’t become impossible (and it never will be), just unrewarding.

All that privacy and encryption is of course under the hood. To users, Wire is a combination of Skype, WhatsApp, Snapchat, GoToMeeting, mobile telephone and various other apps – and it looks pretty much like them, too. Even replacing up to 50 per cent of the enterprises’ email is part of the package, although with all the alternatives, most users employ it sparingly. Brøgger – not surprisingly a power user of Wire – says it has released him from “email hell”. “There are weeks where I don’t receive a single email from a colleague. We communicate just as much, but in a shorter, more focused way.”

Chasing the enterprise

Although it started by serving private users, Wire is now focused on corporates. An enterprise version launched early this year already is used by 100+ companies. Estimated total users of Wire sum to some quarter of a million, with the majority of their traffic during business hours.

So far, the main selling point is privacy, but another one is on the way: availability. Wire has just started offering Wire Red, an on-demand crisis collaboration infrastructure – in other words, a “backup” communications network. Large organisations increasingly need a secondary network in case their primary one fails. As unlikely as that might sound, failure became spectacularly real in mid-2017 when the malevolent “NoPetya” virus crashed communications at major companies such as Maersk, Mondelez, Rosneft and TNT.

“They lost control of their networks and they lost hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Brøgger. With Wire, they would have had a decentralised alternative already in place. To use it, just pick up the phone and log in. No waiting required.

Unless you’re deep into tech, you probably don’t know the name Janus Friis, but almost everyone knows the name Skype. The former co-founded the latter, which ultimately propelled the former into billionairedom. Only now in his early 40s, Friis is not resting on his laurels, but entrepreneuring further – among other things with Wire, which employs a notable number of former Skype-ites. The six-year-old company originally aimed at individuals, but now is focused on corporate users: a mission, Morton Brøgger came in late 2017 to lead. Wire’s 50-some employees are mostly developers and engineers based in Berlin, plus a sales team in Silicon Valley and administrative headquarters in Zug. Why Zug? “Switzerland has some of the best privacy laws in the world,” says Brøgger. “Its people believe in privacy, also in security and quality. We fit right in here.”


Just say no – to advertising

A happy side effect of focusing on business customers is that Wire avoids two challenges common to communications apps. First is the network effect: if a company adopts Wire, it has an immediate network of users, so this need not be built up over time. Second is that of choosing a revenue source, i.e. advertising or direct payment? Wire follows the traditional software model, charging per user month.

“Enterprises must accept their employees’ use of the latest communications tools, and employees must accept that those tools be secure.”

“We could never sell metadata on our customers like Facebook does,” Brøgger explains, “because we don’t even collect such usage data.” Wire has explicitly rejected the advertising model, mainly because that conflicts inherently with its prized feature of privacy. As for the ongoing controversy of Internet confidentiality and particularly the alleged misuse of data by third parties such as Cambridge Analytica, Brøgger says he is sadly unsurprised. “You can’t read the news these days without hearing about data breaches. Privacy and security are the two biggest issues in technology today. In future, there probably will be more regulation around it, but ultimately this is something that companies must solve on their own. Waiting around for regulations is too risky: you might be out of business before they take effect.”

Secure texting, chatting, telephoning, exchanging videos and files – Wire combines all of this in a single app.

Morten Brøggers
Short questions – short answers

Describe yourself in three hashtags:
#enoughemails, #growth, #securecommunication.

Favourite app:
Wire, of course. After that come SAS, United, Apple Music, Map My Run and Emily's Workout.

First mobile:
Nokia 2110, with a pull-out antenna.

Dream job, as a child:
I always wanted to be a CEO.

Screen saver:
A photo of my family.