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.