Tech + Health

01.17.14

Confide Is the Best Way to Keep Your Dastardly Deeds Hidden—For Now

If you’re a professional who needs to communicate without a paper trail, Confide is for you—at least until it gets hacked or bought by a big, privacy-invading tech firm.

Confide, the disappearing-messaging app for grownups that was tabbed as one of the The Daily Beast’s hot apps for the week, has come too late for many professionals. But if you want to rag on co-workers, engage in political machinations, and swap tips about hot stocks without having to worry so much about the consequences, it’s right on time.

The media is full of stories of careers and lives laid waste by indiscreet texts, emails, and other digital communications. The New Jersey George Washington Bridge scandal reached critical mass only when infelicitous emails and texts between Governor Chris Christie’s chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, to political operative David Wildstein, and others were subpoenaed by the state legislature and leaked to the press. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly infamously wrote to Wildstein. Her career—and possibly, Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions—has been derailed.

Meanwhile, in lower Manhattan, former SAC Capital manager Matthew Martoma is on trial for insider trading in drug-company stocks. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has run up an impressive run of insider-trading convictions—77, with no losses—largely because prosecutors have been able to mine troves of emails, texts, instant messaging threads and other forms of digital communication. My favorite was the instant messaging thread between two easily busted jokers, which included gems like: “Jesus don’t tell anyone else,” and “I don’t want to go to jail.”

With electronic communication, in all its forms, having replaced face-to-face communications, and with digital technology having replaced analogue technology, our lives are documented and stored. Every off-the-cuff utterance, each whit of conspiracy, every misspoken phrase is laid down in bits and bytes, captured, stored, and easily accessed by employers, the government, authorities, and, ultimately, the public. On trading floors, every conversation is taped, and employees are often prohibited from using personal phones or emails—the better to ensure compliance.

That’s good news for law enforcement, but bad news for people trying to do things sub rosa, or even just confidentially.

This concern has led, in some quarters, to a revival of an ancient communications technology: face-to-face conversation. For most middle-aged big-shots, the acronym LDL is a measure of cholesterol. For people in sensitive workplaces, it means “let’s discuss live,” as in “Let’s not talk about this thing in a way that could create a paper trail that could be awkward for us down the road.” In 2007, when Goldman Sachs was devising strategies to get rid of junky mortgages, one trader cut the electronic conversation short by suggesting “LDL.”

But DL’ing is a really unwieldy way of doing business in this 24/7, hyperconnected, global economy. Imagine every communication with a co-worker had to take place face-to-face. It’s enormously inefficient.

For this reason, Snapchat caught on like wildfire. The idea, and promise, of the popular app is that the information you send—a photo, and anything you want to write on it—disappears after 10 seconds or so. Teens who had been embarassed by Facebook postings and texts, easily captured and shared an infinitum, quickly glommed onto it. Snapchat offers all the exhibitionism and daring without the threat of public disclosure.

But one can see how it could easily be used for other purposes. Let’s say you had a hot, possibly illegal, tip on a stock and wanted to communicate it to somebody without leaving a trail. Take a selfie, write “Blue Star Air is in play” on it, and Snapchat it to your buddy. The crucial information is imparted, but it disappears, theoretically unretrievable. Last summer, Jim Cramer of CNBC told Preet Bharara at an event that Snapchat could be used by traders for illicit activity. Bharara, at the time, said he had never heard of Snapchat.

Alas, Snapchat is an imperfect vehicle for anonymous communications. The authorities certainly know about it now. Worse, Snapchat stores the messages sent and hackers have demonstrated the ability to bust into its system. The messages swapped on Snapchat, it turn out, don’t really disappear.

And so some savvy digital media folks have come up with an older, more professional, more discreet version of Snapchat: Confide.

The company’s founders include Howard Lerman, the current CEO of geodata firm Yext, and former AOL executive Jon Brod.

Grownups, it turns out, have just as much to gain from disappearing texts as teenagers. “Off-the-record conversations happen all the time in the offline world,” the company notes. “They allow you to be honest and genuine without worrying that every word is being archived.” Or—and here’s how I would put it—non-documented talk is liberating. There are plenty of legitimate professional purposes for which it would be advantageous to communicate orally, as if it were a non-recorded conversation, rather than through email or texts. You want to complain about a co-worker, speak confidentially about compensation or a job offer, propose a hush-hush meeting with a counterpart, hatch a takeover bid, or hatch a political payback scheme. But you don’t want to create a paper trail that could get you in trouble, or get you in hot water with HR.

Confide says it has learned from Snapchat’s gawky adolescence. The texts are sent via email rather than through phones. It uses powerful encryption technology. The messages appears as blocks instead of letters, and don’t reveal themselves until the user swipes over them. The service alerts you if somebody tries to take a screenshot of a Confide message, and provides receipts that document when your counterpart has read the text. And, most importantly, Confide promises that the messages sent aren’t stored on the company’s internal servers.

It all sounds great. If Anthony Weiner had used Confide instead of Twitter to send photos of his package, he might still have a political career.

But there is good reason to be skeptical. If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that anything that can be created digitally can be captured, stored, and shared digitally, that the government will try to access it at some point, and that most companies will help the government do so. What’s more, all sorts of companies that have really big incentives to guard data fiercely get hacked all the time. Internet security works really well—until the moment it doesn’t. Also, once messaging applications gain critical mass, they’ll become takeover targets of truly massive companies for whom privacy and anonymity aren’t necessarily first-order concerns (Facebook has already unsuccessfully bid $3 billion for Snapchat). Finally, consumers should always remember that when they use free communication services, they are providing data for companies to mine on behalf of themselves, or marketers and advertisers.

While I appreciate innovation as much as the next guy, it’s clear that neither Snapchat nor Confide marks a significant improvement on a foolproof disappearing-message application from the 1960s: those Mission: Impossible tapes.