The Privacy Startups: A Chat System That Knows How To Forget


More than a decade after Google (NSDQ: GOOG) launched, we’re all learning that the web has a very long memory. Sometimes it seems too long; there are still things, after all, that we don’t want to remember. It’s this desire for a more fleeting kind of interaction on the social web-an interaction more like real life-that is behind Zubin Wadia’s new company, SecretSocial.

This is the third installment in “The Privacy Startups,” an occasional series about new companies with a special focus on privacy. (You can read the here and here.

Will a critical mass of internet users be interested in walling off at least some of the conversations they have on today’s over-sharing social networks? And if they are, will some kind of revenue model be apparent that isn’t based on gathering and selling user data? Those are the real challenges facing SecretSocial and other companies that would follow in its footsteps.

The Main Idea: SecretSocial lets people move a conversation from email or Twitter into a private messaging service. This can be done by simply inviting people with a link into a SecretSocial chat room, or for “power users” SecretSocial has a Chrome extension that makes a “go private” button pop up in Gmail and Twitter.

It’s a private messaging service that doesn’t keep a record of the conversation. All conversations in SecretSocial have an “expiration date” after which all trace of it is wiped, from both users’ browsers and from SecretSocial’s server. That can be anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 week, depending on what the participants in the conversation want.

While many people have an impression that things like instant-messaging services are private, there are all too many examples of situations where that isn’t the case. Think, for instance, of the extensive paper trail made public in the Viacom v. YouTube litigation; instant message conversations between early YouTube employees, who probably had no idea their conversation was being recorded-ended up becoming key evidence for Viacom (NYSE: VIA).

And what about Twitter, which already has an ostensibly private direct-messaging system? “Twitter DM’s aren’t particularly secure,” notes Wadia. “They are kept perpetually on Twitter servers, and they require you to be mutual followers.”

With SecretSocial, Wadia is aiming for an interaction that best mimicks what typically transpires in the real world. “At an event, some people you’ll just take their business cards, some people might make more of an impression on you,” says Wadia. “That’s the end of it. There’s no log. There’s no event history. No record of the fact that we met and had this conversation.”

While SecretSocial might seem more natural in a professional context, Wadia hopes people with use the system socially as well. “It is whatever users make it. You want to flirt, go ahead. It could be used as a “guys’ night out,” a one-day link where everyone posts what they want.” (Because what happens in Vegas isn’t going to stay in Vegas if it’s posted on Facebook.”

How He Got The Idea: Wadia has a background in companies that work with the government, going back about a decade. “I’ve become familiar with information security and the boundaries between what you can say publicly and privately.” During that time, the social web experienced explosive growth, and Wadia started thinking about how his background in security could be useful. “With Twitter and Facebook, I started to realize there’s a hole here that hasn’t been filled-to be able to have a real-world style, disposable interaction on the web.”

Wadia and his co-founder, Alexis Sellier, started working on the company in earnest in January, and launched a private beta version the next month. The official launch was in April 2011 at the pii2011 conference.

While Wadia doesn’t disclose exact figures, he says SecretSocial has been adding thousands of users a month, and today the number of users on the service is “definitely north of 25,000.” That includes users from 102 countries.

What’s Next: The next step for SecretSocial is to add functionality for social networks like Facebook and Google+. He imagines a system where next to every “+1” button there could also be a “go private” button for SecretSocial users. “We want to be the go-to place whenever you have a private, offline interaction with someone,” he says. “We’re closely watching Google+, because it’s a newer, more dynamic ecosystem over there.”

How The Company Makes Money: So far, it doesn’t. Wadia isn’t really concerned about it right now; SecretSocial is his fourth company, and for now, revenues from those other businesses are able to support his SecretSocial “habit,” he says. The company of the four that he spends most of his time on right now is CiviGuard, a notification service geared toward government agencies.

The Competition: Since SecretSocial’s plan is to integrate with social networks and e-mail, whatever privacy features Google and Facebook themselves roll out will compete with SecretSocial and its ilk. Google+ is clearly already trying to create more private spaces than Facebook with its “circles” feature.

What’s the biggest privacy problem with businesses in the Data 2.0 world? “Everybody is coming up with these solutions for privacy, they all do this assuming data needs to be retained forever, and they build moats around it,” says Wadia. “That’s overrated. A lot of this data analysis, complex or not, can occur in realtime. Whatever information you need to garner from this data, infer that within a short window, and then keep only what you must-discard the rest.”

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