Hiding Your Messages — Swiss-Vault Style

Hiding Your Messages — Swiss-Vault Style

By Steven Butler

SourceJan Stromme/Getty


Because your data is a hot commodity.

By Steven Butler

Worried about them spying eyes? Then consider taking a sort of Swiss-vault approach to hiding messages sent to friends or business associates.  

At the core of a fast-growing messaging app called Threema are data servers located in Switzerland that transmit an encrypted message then promptly delete it. Most recently, the company has launched a platform for small enterprise secure messaging, called Threema Gateway, for secretly looping in employees and customers.

But who, exactly, is using this tech? Sales of the Threema app — at $2 a pop — exploded after Facebook bought the popular messaging app WhatsApp just over a year ago for $19 billion, tripling the number of Threema users within a few weeks. Germans, it turns out, signed up in droves — millions of them. “Germans are very sensitive when it comes to privacy issues,” says Roman Flepp, one of the app’s creators. He attributes German sensitivity to historical issues, such as Nazi and East German Stasi spying on citizens.

Initially, Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying drove growth for Threema, though Facebook led to another wave since some WhatsApp users feared Facebook would collect user data and analyze it. Users now total about 3.5 million, with up to 80 percent of those speaking German, says Flepp.

It doesn’t need a phone number or email address to establish an account, so the user identity can be kept secret.

The concept behind the app is simple. Both the sender and receiver need to install Threema on a phone or computer. A text or photo is encrypted on the device and then passes through a Swiss server before being delivered to the recipient, where the app removes the encryption. “It’s very easy to use,” says Manuel Knobel, one of the app’s users, who says he’s talked most of his friends into using it too.

Yet a few of Knobel’s friends have encountered glitches after their initial installation, forcing them to back up and reinstall the phone’s contents. And Threema’s not the only option for secure messaging. In fact, there are many apps that offer encryption, ranging from Google Hangout and WhatsApp, whose messages can still be decoded by the provider, to more exotic solutions like Telegram Messenger, TextSecure or Zendo — each with a somewhat different approach. Unlike Threema, many are also free.

Privacy fanatics don’t like the fact that Threema is not open source and that the messages pass through a server, meaning you have to trust Threema’s promise that they’ll delete them. (Flepp says he relies on the reputation of the Swiss as privacy stalwarts to overcome those fears.)

Still, Threema does stand out in a few ways. For one, unlike other apps, it doesn’t need a phone number or email address to establish an account, so the user identity can be kept secret from the provider. Threema also offers a polling service, which Knobel uses to canvass his friends to find, for example, the best time for everyone to meet for dinner. Knobel just wishes the app had even more features.