Nico Sell Thinks Hackers Can Be a Force for Good

Nico Sell Thinks Hackers Can Be a Force for Good

Welcome to DEF CON, the largest gathering of hackers in the world. In the crowd is Nico Sell, founder and chairman of the online privacy organization, 533DZ Foundation.

Sell is on a mission to change our perception of hackers. She knows that criminals hijacked the term, causing it to evoke thoughts of data leaks and identity theft. But Sell wants to show the world what hackers can be a force for good.

She believes hacking is a superpower; the most important skill set for the future of the world. And she wants to make sure those powers end up in the right hands. Sell started DEF CON Kids, now known as Rootz Asylum, to teach kids both how to hack and make sure they know the immense power their new-found talents hold. She wants to equip the next generation with the tools to thrive and protect themselves in our hyper-connected world.

Cyber Security Recommendations for the 45th Presidency


Cybersecurity Recommendations Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) announced they would be introducing legislation that would consolidate federal cybersecurity operations into a single agency under the Department of Homeland Security. Representative McCaul, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the bill would be one of the first pieces of legislation generated by his committee in the 115th Congress. The announcement came during a news conference in which the two lawmakers outlined the recommendations of the Cyber Policy Task Force they co-chaired at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. They were joined by a number of cybersecurity experts who worked on the task force’s recommendations, including Nico Sell of 533DZ Foundation.


533DZ Foundation announces Whistler, an encrypted app for whistleblowers


By Oiliver Franklin-Wallis


Friday 27 May 2016



Whistleblowers are under threat: whether, as Edward Snowden has argued, from Western governments, or from repressive regimes monitoring online activity to suppress dissent. This week at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the 533DZ Foundation – a new nonprofit spin-off of popular encrypted messaging app Wickr – announced its first investment: Whistler, a secure app to let whistleblowers, and activists organise nonviolent protest and document human rights abuses. Whistler is the brainchild of Srdja Popović, the Serbian activist and author, and Wickr founder Nico Sell. “During the Arab Spring, everybody was talking about how the social networks were used for organising,” said Popović. “Now we are facing this reversal, because the bad guys are learning as well. They’re learning how to restrict your access to the internet, how to surveil you, how to track you down.”

Whistler, which is still in development, will have four key functions: secure messaging, reporting and file sharing, educational materials for nonviolent movements, and a panic button to erase files in case of illegal detention. “[Protesters] need to post safely and securely, so if you put a post on Facebook they don’t trace you back home. This is the first thing they will do in Thailand if you post about the military junta,” said Popović. “The second thing that’s most important is reporting. Not just images, but images with information, with metadata. You record somebody beating somebody, there will be geolocation, a timestamp.” The file sharing would allow citizen reporters to share evidence directly with media organisations, he explained.

007 make opppression backfire

The app will also give training in nonviolent protest techniques developed by CANVAS, Popovic’s nonprofit organisation that trains and assists activists living under oppressive regimes. But arguably most vital is a panic button, to inform relatives and lawyers in case of illegal detention. “The majority of human rights abuse and violations happen in an unknown location, where lawyers and journalists cannot reach you, so speed of discovery where you are is so important,” he said. By using the panic button, Whistler will wipe its own data – but only after messaging nominated friends, family or lawyers. It will also send a location tag to help investigators track your whereabouts.

“Talking to Srdja, there were features that these activists wanted to add to Wickr – and so that was one of the reasons I founded the 533DZ Foundation, so that we could work on these features on top of a secure platform,” said Sell. The 533DZ Foundation hopes to release Whistler on Android later this year.

“What this does, and what Srdja’s techniques do, is they give people the confidence to be able to speak out,” said Sell. “Because they know that they have got backing, and more confidence to be brave.”

533DZ Foundation invests in Whistler


By Jonathan Shieber

Jonathan Shieber @jshieber

Published @ TechCrunch May 23, 2016

Earlier today at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the 533DZ Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to private communication and uncensored information, announced its first investment in a new secure communications and education app for human rights activists and citizen reporters called Whistler.

Around the world, thousands of citizen activists have turned to the Internet and social media as tools to expose oppression and organize non-violent resistance to incredibly violent regimes.

However, many of these tools leave their users exposed to potential acts of reprisal from the very powers they seek to challenge.

Whistler aims to change that.

Whistler 1

It’s the brain child of Srdja Popović, a Serbian dissident and political activist, and Nico Sell, the founder of the secure messaging service Wickr and the 533DZ Foundation.

The two met at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering devoted to increasing communication among human rights advocates and their supporters, and began discussing how to create secure tools for activists to use in crisis situations.

The need for these kinds of secure forums is something that Popović understands all too well. As a young activist in Serbia, he founded Otpor! (Resistance!) which was instrumental in ousting the repressive Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milošević.

Harnessing his work with Otpor!, Popović founded the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (Canvas), a non-governmental organization that aims to educate activists in successful ways to fight authoritarian regimes — drawing heavily from Popović’s own experiences.

And Whistler, the app under development with the financial support from Sell’s 533DZ Foundation, is the next step in the evolution of Canvas’ mission.

Already, the curriculum that Popović has developed with Canvas has served as a blueprint for activists in countries including Iran, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Palestine, Belarus, Tunisia and Egypt. And the organization took its mission a step further by providing a virtual curriculum for students globally through an initiative developed in conjunction with Harvard.

Whistler brings all of that to mobile phones through an app that takes advantage of all of the phone’s features as an audio and video recording device, as well as its Internet connectivity.

Initially built for the Android operating system, Whistler will be designed with functions that allow for the easy dissemination of photos, video and audio; secure communications among activists, NGOs, and journalists locally and internationally; access to training resources on digital safety and non-violent activism; and finally a “panic button” that will alert an individual’s social network securely in the event of an arrest, detention or extreme surveillance.

The button will also act as a data shredder, and provide geo-location updates in case an activist is brought to a black site (one that’s off the grid and not officially sanctioned, but where security forces typically disappear political agitators).

“What we are talking about with Nico is trying to find out about the needs of people in oppressed societies and what technology can offer them,” says Popović of Whistler’s mission.

It turns out that while technology can offer activists a lot, it’s very much a double-edged sword — at least when it comes to publicly available tools like Facebook, Twitter, Skype and others.

Here is where Sell’s experience with security and encryption become vitally important.

Sell warns that the tools employed by normal civil societies are built for consumers who don’t have to deal with the problems of authoritarian censorship or surveillance. Most services collect user information to monetize their audiences, Sell’s organization warns. And governments take advantage of that openness, and the inexperience of users in oppressive regimes to target, intimidate and prosecute activists.

Hence, the need for Whistler.

“What you try to do is you want to give a built-in tool for the oppressed,” says Popović.

So, the 533DZ Foundation is giving Popović the money and support to develop this built-in tool. Whistler is, in fact, a business, but one that will kick all of its revenues back into the company to make the product better.

For Srdja, perhaps the most powerful aspect of Whistler is the ability to network activists from around the globe.

“I’m more interested in how activists can learn from each other,” he said. “There aren’t so many ways where activists in the Ukraine can see a viral video from Venezuela. One of the most powerful things about this is seeing that the recipes for successful non-violent struggle are low-risk and replicable.”

The death of sharing: 20/20 with Nico Sell


By Eoghan McNeill

March 10, 2016

Four years’ time. What’s the world going to look like in 2020? We’re asking people in our network just that for our new interview series 20/20.

Delete the pictures of the espresso martinis you had last weekend. Lose the snaps of your mates having a few mid-week pints. Think whether you need to tweet about whether you’re feeling the Bern or ready for Hillary. We can all guess you’re not a fan of Donald.

Whether anyone cares about what you share is debatable. Perhaps worse, it’s going out of fashion. That’s according to Nico Sell, the evangelist for keeping yourself to yourself online and co-founder of secure messaging service Wickr.

Nico takes pride in her paranoia. Look for a photograph of her without her trademark dark shades – you’ll come up short. She wears them in an effort to minimise her digital footprint. There’s less of her person online, even if it’s just her eyes. She stays away from ‘pay with your privacy’ social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. She says that posting pictures of your children online is irresponsible.

Hackers have superpowers

Nico has spent a career fighting hacking. She’s now teaching children the art with r00tz Asylum, an organization where kids aged 8-16 can learn just how easily they can be spied on through oversharing on social networks. It’s here that she can see a shift in attitude regarding how much personal information should be shared online.

#DEFCON isn't normally where u bring kids, but wait, there's #r00tz! via

— r00tz (@r00tzasylum) September 17, 2015

r00tz Asylum teaches children how to hack so they may never be a victim of one

“I think it’s really just a trend right now in society. The generation before these kids never had the chance to publish something to the world publicly. That was a really difficult thing to do, so when they got the chance, everyone wanted to do it. The novelty is starting to wear off,” says Nico.

She says that the youth are beginning to gravitate toward more private lives and starting to value anonymity. The r00tz Asylum hackers don’t use Facebook, instead preferring anonymous Tumblr accounts. They’re not posting pictures of themselves at parties; they’re blogging about their favourite TV show.

The threat posed by over-sharing personal information online first became apparent to Nico when she received her own hacker’s education. Having spent time as a professional snowboarder in her teens, she began hanging out at hackers’ gathering DEF CON and helping founder Jeff Moss with the event. She learned just how easy it is from hackers themselves.

“I’m actually a very trusting, optimistic person, ironically. But once you’ve been educated by hackers, you can’t ever go back. As soon as you learn how easy it is to eavesdrop on cellphone calls, or break into sites like Facebook and Twitter, you can’t think the same ever again,” says Nico.

Nico owes her life philosophy to the hacker community. She recognizes that hackers are often thought of negatively by the mainstream, but says that we could all learn from them. Hacking is just a set of skills.

“I have to remind people that hacking can be used for good and bad. It’s actually one of the most powerful skills, definitely for the next four years. Hackers are the ones who have the superpowers,” she says.

Nico turned down the FBI – why can’t Apple?

It’s easy to guess whose side Nico takes in Apple v FBI. The two are locked in a legal fight to determine whether the tech firm should be compelled to help the law enforcement agency break into an iPhone. The phone was recovered at the scene of the San Bernardino attack in December 2015, and the FBI maintain information stored on it will help with their investigations.

“I would rather that the government would stand up for a strong democracy. I think it’s their job. But instead Tim Cook is having to be the national security hero in this instance,” says Nico.

Nico says that her refusal to accede to the demand was influenced by her work at DEF CON, where she was shown firsthand how easily lawful intercept machines could be broken into. She realized the ease with which the code could be used for wrong.

“I told the FBI agent that I’d been taught how to break into these machines, and as soon as you understand how easily that can happen, it’s clear that a backdoor for the good guys is always a backdoor for the bad guys,” says Nico.

George Orwell missed something

Nico says that George Orwell forgot about one thing in 1984. New technologies can empower just as easily as oppress. The internet can facilitate the mass surveillance of nation states across the globe. It can equally mobilise mass social movements against such authoritarianism.

Wickr is not merely a service for those looking to maintain privacy. It’s also being used by those on the offensive. Through the Human Rights Foundation, Wickr work with dissidents committed to overthrowing Kim Jong-un. The worst dictator of our time, as Nico puts it. “North Korea will come down even sooner than we think,” she says.

Nico interviews a North Korean activist

“Surveillance and encryption are just tools. Really powerful tools. The people who can use these tools best will win. That’s why we’re really dedicated to teaching activists how to use them better than authoritarian regimes,” she says.

Nico says that social movements will be the next great weapon of the coming decade, and that for these movements to be effective, secure lines of communication are paramount. She says that Wickr is the perfect tool for those fighting totalitarian regimes across the world, and that these regimes can’t survive in the information age.

From oversharing to overthrowing, it’s all about who teaches you how to use the tools of life spent online.

Tech Community Supports Apple In Its Fight For Encryption


By Brian Barrett


March 3, 2016

IN A WIDE-RANGING show of solidarity, dozens of Apple’s tech industry competitors and contemporaries filed amicus briefs today in support of the company’s stand against the FBI. In one instance, heavyweights including Google, Microsoft, and Facebook set aside their corporate rivalries to file jointly. Twitter, Airbnb, Ebay, Reddit, and a half dozen other Internet luminaries joined forces to file another brief.

The briefs, which argue that Apple should not be compelled to create software to help the FBI break into an iPhone that had been in possession of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook, are meant to bolster the Cupertino company’s legal case. Intel and AT&T—yes, the same AT&T that had a secret spying pact with the NSA—filed their briefs solo. The ACLU, Access Now, and the 533DZ Foundation, and a group of security experts have lent their support as well, with more companies, experts, and institutions expected to join in by the end of the Thursday deadline set by the case’s judge Sheri Pym.

While this seems like a natural cause for the technology industry to rally behind, many tech leaders were initially slow to express support for Apple in the matter. As the New York Times reports, several companies also hesitated to support Apple publicly. Some expressed concern over whether this was the right fight to pick, while others worried about public perception.

Those concerns appear to have been allayed, at least on the part of the companies who filed Thursday. Their briefs in support of Apple are unequivocal, and use language as forceful as the company’s own.

Encrypted Messaging App Co-Founder: Tim Cook Is A 'National Security Hero'

February 18, 2016

Heard on All Things Considered

NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Nico Sell, co-founder and co-chairman of Wickr, an encrypted messaging app, about Apple's fight against the FBI's order to unlock an iPhone owned by a terrorist.



Here is some of what Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, said about his company's products when I spoke to him last fall.


TIM COOK: Privacy is designed into the product, and security is designed in. Some of our most personal data is on the phone - our financial data, our health information, our conversations with our friends and family and coworkers. And so instead of us taking that data into Apple, we've kept data on the phone, and it's encrypted by you. You control it.

SIEGEL: But does that mean that if a clever terrorist encrypts his texts, it really doesn't matter whether the government has access to that or not?

COOK: National security always matters, obviously, but the reality is that if you have an open door in your software for the good guys, the bad guys get in there, too. We think that our customers want us to help them keep their data safe.

SIEGEL: That was last October. Now the CEO of Apple has locked horns with the government. The company is vowing to fight a court order to help the FBI unlock an iPhone that was used by a terrorist, Syed Farook, in San Bernardino, Calif., last year. When Tim Cook says privacy is designed into the product, he's expressing an idea promoted by privacy advocates, Privacy by Design. And here to talk about what that means in this case is Nico Sell, who's co-chairman and co-founder of Wickr, which is an app designed for privacy. It allows people to send encrypted messages that self-destruct after time. Welcome to the program.

NICO SELL: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: If you were CEO of Apple, would you comply with a court order or oppose it as long as you could?

SELL: I hope I could be as brave as Tim Cook and do the exact same thing. I think he's a national security hero right now, and more of us need to follow him.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, Wickr's stated privacy policy is to comply with subpoenas, lawful court orders.

SELL: Definitely. I'm sure that Apple's is the exact same. I mean, all of us want to comply. The problem here is there is an unprecedented ask by creating this backdoor. And this is a backdoor. It will be used for the bad guys. And by Tim Cook agreeing to not build this, he's helping protect all of us.

SIEGEL: The request to open up the San Bernardino iPhone is about the strongest case the government could make. The user of the phone is dead. He was a mass murderer. He's been linked to a group that espouses mass murderers and is said to be plotting some more. The owner of the phone was actually Farook's employer, and it says the FBI can have at it. You don't think that iPhone users, other customers would cut Apple a little slack on this one?

SELL: I think they would cut it slack, but anyone in the technology industry understands that there is absolutely no way to build this for just one phone. What the FBI is asking Apple to do is to create an amazingly strong weapon that would actually - could be used to devastate the United States and the world. Beyond national security, it's also the legal precedent they sent, what we do to innovation to drive it away from the country and all the economy.

SIEGEL: You think it could devastate the country and the world?

SELL: Yes, I do. You know, the most important lessons I've learned in my life are from hackers. And as soon as you understand how to break in and abuse one of these pieces of code, you clearly understand why this is something that we would never want to do because it endangers our security greatly.

SIEGEL: I understand the fear of the government possessing a key to unlock every iPhone. But if Apple, say, developed such a key, kept control of it, received the iPhone in question, applied this key and then sent the unlocked phone to the FBI, would such a hypothetical file pose a danger just because it existed within the corporate confines of Apple and a few people knew about it?

SELL: It would. The U.S. government and Apple are two of the very best companies in the world at security, and they've both had major breaches. And we always think about with Wickr, too - it's really, you know - we say, can we survive the black van scenario? If someone did take one of us, would we be able to change it? And the answer is no.

SIEGEL: You have said that someone claiming to be from the FBI has approached you in the past about designing a way to allow the government to retrieve information from users of Wickr, your app.

SELL: Correct.

SIEGEL: You say you declined to do that. Can you imagine circumstances - I mean, the threat of detonating a nuclear weapon, something like that - where you would say, OK, that's my line; I would, at that point, do whatever I could?

SELL: No. So I think - like I said, I think this is one of the most devastating weapons that we could ever see if you have this. I mean, if you look at Wickr, we take our job really seriously because people fighting terrorists use and depend on Wickr every day as well as activists fighting totalitarian regimes. So let's say this does take precedent and Apple does this. Then we could have the FBI and numerous other agencies in 200 other countries coming to us forcing us to change our software, which is really concerning.

SIEGEL: Nico Sell, thanks for sharing your views with us.

SELL: Thanks for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Nico Sell, co-founder and co-chair of Wickr, an encrypted messaging app.

Davos 2016: Privacy is a right, says 533DZ Foundation

Davos 2016


January 21, 2016

Messaging app Wickr promises secure communications that cannot be snooped on by anyone, including spy agencies. That’s great for anyone who wants privacy, but is it also a gift for wrongdoers? Reuters reporter Julian Satterthwaite put the question to Nico Sell, Founder of 533DZ Foundation, on a trip on the Davos cable car.

Davos 2016: Your Digital Footprint & your Security


By Matthew J. Belvedere


Davos 2016

Matthew J. Belvedere - @Matt_Belvedere

January 20, 2016


It's commonplace for many people nowadays to broadcast their lives on the Internet through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

But openly providing personal information online can result in identity theft, said Nico Sell, co-founder of Wickr, a smartphone app that says it provides military-grade encryption of peer-to-peer text, photo, audio and video messages.

"Think about the digital footprint that you're leaving online everyday and try minimize it in ways that are easy enough for you to do," Sell told CNBC's "Squawk Box" in an interview from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

In one of the most visible aspects of her own privacy measures, Sell wears sunglasses whenever cameras are around. "It's really not for facial recognition, it's more human recognition," she said. "It's amazing people from high school won't recognize me [with glasses]. I take off my sunglasses and walk around and [other] people don't recognize me."

Sell believes she's not alone in wanting to remain as anonymous as possible. She said younger teenagers generally look to protect their online presence perhaps more than their older classmates or the 20-somethings and 30-somethings who share their lives with abandon.

Wickr says it does not collect user data. As more and more people seek privacy online, Sell said, "The business model that will rule the next decade is one that is not made off of big data because big data is really hard to secure."

"I think hoarding it will cause more harm," she added, referring to sites that use personal data to sell advertising.

As an offshoot of the for-profit Wickr, Sell has created the nonprofit 533DZ Foundation, which advocates for secure communications around the world.

"It's a real mistake to say privacy and security are not on the same side," Sell said, reacting to questions about whether Wickr app provides terrorists with the ability to conduct untraceable communications.

"Those people fighting terrorists use Wickr everyday," she continued. "I'm also all about protecting us from terrorists. And this is how we do it, by having secure communications."

Sell said there's no "backdoor" into Wickr's platform. "It makes both dealing with law enforcement a lot easier because we don't have anything that we could give them. It makes a lot easier to defend from hackers."

"The more data that you have the more you have to protect," she stressed.

These kinds of discussions about navigating the evolution of the digital age are central to the theme at Davos this year, "Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution," as technologies blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.