Ephemeral messaging apps like Snapchat and Wickr claim to delete your messages after they have been sent. All too often, the data isn't actually deleted as advertised, but rather only hidden or obscured in some way.
Glimpse is an ephemeral messaging app a la Snapchat that appears to take privacy just as seriously as other ephemeral apps take fun. The app uses end-to-end encryption when sending messages and keeps no user logs. It is much closer to the ideal of ephemerality than other apps that advertise the same. And despite its privacy chops, Glimpse appears to be taking off so far with millennials much more than crypto-nerds and security wonks.
"We want to bring privacy to the mainstream," Elissa Shevinsky, the cofounder of Glimpse, tells me during our chat in midtown Manhattan.
Shevinsky spoke to me at length about privacy and the importance of usability to mass adoption of privacy-oriented tools. From behind her black thick-rimmed glasses, she was just as comfortable talking about why privacy is important to democracy as she was explaining why online dating sucks for women.
"Glimpse has two missions," Shevinsky said. "The first is digital rights, which means we'll stand behind free speech and we believe that people have a right to communicate privately. We think that's very important to democracy."
"Our second mission is women in tech and in some ways that's less known." Shevinsky was recently profiled in a New York Times article on women in technology, which told the story of her split and eventual reconciliation with her business partner Pax Dickinson due to his tweeting in defense of an app called TitStare, which is about as awful as it sounds. When Dickinson apologized, Shevinsky came back to Glimpse—but this time as his boss.
"The women in tech mission was part of the deal that Pax and I made when I came back to Glimpse. Surprisingly Pax was very much in favor of that. He's been a real evangelist for me personally and has since surrounded himself with strong women."
Shevinsky's interest in privacy, her experience in online dating, and commitment to women in tech all coalesced naturally in Glimpse. As Founder and CEO of startup MakeOut Labs, her previous projects included a Jewish dating site and a hack for OkCupid that created a spam filter for users' inboxes. The latter was wildly popular with female users who are perpetually inundated with sleazy come-ons.
"I started realizing that the endgame for online dating was monetizing user data," says Shevinsky. "And I started to appreciate with Snowden's revelations that that was not a business I wanted to be in. I felt extremely good about being in the business of making dating better for women, but more than anything I wanted to work on anti-NSA activism last summer."
In addition to encrypting all messages sent on the network, Glimpse also refuses to keep logs on its users—a practice Shevinsky refers to as "life cycle ephemerality." After news that Snapchat doesn't actually delete messages once viewed and its unfortunate end-of-year hack, this kind of true ephemerality is increasingly valuable. Coupled with the online epidemic of revenge porn, women especially have reasons to prefer apps that are legitimately secure and delete data.
"The biggest reason we don't keep logs is to protect user privacy," says Shevinsky. "If the data isn't there, then we can't give it to third parties unintentionally against our will or upon request."
But according to Shevinsky, her motivation for not keeping logs is not solely to do the right thing. To her mind, it also makes business sense.
"An added side benefit of not keeping logs is that we save money on data storage expenses. It's expensive to store data for a long period of time and it's mostly unnecessary. Even though we can't monetize user data, I just don't see it as a financial compromise. There's so much money to be made in this space. I believe that we will have more market share and monetize our feature set better by being a company that people can trust for privacy. And we can deliver a better customer experience by not having advertising."
Shevinsky and Glimpse may be sailing just a little ahead of the trend with their decision. The European Union Court of Justice recently ruled that ordinary Internet users have a "right to be forgotten." The ruling has the biggest implications for search engines like Google, but Glimpse's log deletion might become a matter of complying with the law more than any altruistic or business motivations.
Shevinsky stresses that our contemporary obsession with "big data" was not how the Internet was originally conceived. Due to technical limitations, ephemerality was a given in the Internet's nascent stages.
"In the early days of the Internet persistence was rare. Anyone who was using the Internet in the '90s or early 2000s remembers using floppy disks because we didn't have Dropbox or Gmail," says Shevinsky. "So technologists started working on this problem of how to store data and we took for granted, of course, that we would actually want to. And then companies crept up with business models around the storage of that data."
According to Shevinsky, Glimpse's fastest adoption rate has come from sororities and fraternities on college campuses. Raine Dalton, creative strategy director for Glimpse, crafted a targeted outreach program specifically for Greek life organizations.
Dalton hires direct contacts at frats and sororities, trains them remotely, and then sets them out to recruit their fellow students to try out Glimpse.
"We're reaching out to undergraduate students who are involved on campus and members of sororities and fraternities," says Dalton. "These groups typically have strong communities and are more likely to be early adopters of a social, message-sharing app."
In that sense, targeting this subset of students is certainly one part just another smart business decision. But given the role of millennials as trend influencers, it is also a clever way to shoehorn encrypted messaging into the mainstream.
"They appreciate that Glimpse respects their privacy. And yet many new users ask us how the app is different from Snapchat and why they should use it. At first we were emphasizing privacy—that Glimpse offers users a more secure way to send content because of its encryption and screenshot protection."
It turns out, though, that privacy alone is not what draws this user base to Glimpse. In their user feedback and testing, it seems users appreciate the subtle consumer-facing feature-set that differentiates Glimpse from Snapchat: the fact that you can upload a photo from your camera roll, a more robust finger-painting tool, and the ability to layer a full screen of text over an image.
"We've since gotten feedback that people are using the app because of our advanced camera features," says Dalton. Shevinsky adds that "they like that Glimpse is encrypted but they aren't choosing it for that feature."
The stereotype of teens and millennials is that they are chronic over-sharers whose sense of privacy has been warped—if not eradicated—by the proliferation of social media. But Shevinsky sees the matter differently. She believes, like danah boyd, who has written on the topic for Fast Company, that millennials are actively creating a new sense of privacy.
"Young people are very savvy in creating new ways to connect in an ecosystem that often restricts their abilities to relate in more normal ways," says Shevinsky. "American teens and millennials are connecting more online because young people have fewer places and ways to connect with each other in the public sphere."
However, in Shevinsky's view, the act of connecting online does not mean that teens completely lack a filter.
"Teens and millennials seek privacy from their parents, their schools, future employers, and from the social drama that is a natural side effect of public sharing," she says. "So of course they will gravitate to new social networks. Unlike the rest of us who are looking to connect widely, teens and millennials have good reasons to find spaces to connect with their close friends and others in their peer group."
That last part explains the surging popularity of Snapchat and, consequently, could help boost Glimpse's appeal. Both apps satisfy the desire for social sharing, but facilitate it happening in a more selective and—dare I say—private way.
If young people do ultimately prefer Glimpse over Snapchat and other ephemeral messaging apps, whether because of encryption or camera roll features, the end result will be for messages that users intend to stay private do truly stay that way.
It's no secret that sexting is one of the most common uses of Snapchat. And there is no reason to think that Glimpse would be anything different. That use-case might serve to partially explain Glimpse's popularity with the collegiate crowd.
"We wanted to build Snapchat for grown-ups. So sexting was part of it," says Shevinsky. "It was less that we wanted Glimpse to be a sexting app but more that Pax and I thought that it would be fun for us to just admit it."
The app's FAQ page has a humorous take on the sexting use-case, true to the founders' desire to be up front about how people actually use a picture messaging app in 2014. Today Shevinsky describes Glimpse as an "intimacy app" more than a sexting app. She sees it as a way for people to share passing moments with those they are close to—whether those moments are sexual or otherwise. (No doubt, though, that the ability to keep the NSA from seeing your naughty bits is a plus for users.)
Amid recent reports confirming that the NSA specifically targets privacy-conscious users, Glimpse could become an important piece of the technology landscape. Apparently, even searching for popular privacy software will trigger a user's IP address being logged. Because Glimpse feels more like a regular consumer app, it might not show up on the NSA's list of privacy tools that warrant closer monitoring of an individual. So having security measures like end-to-end encryption baked into consumer-facing apps such as Glimpse can mitigate some of the risk of opting for private communication.
In this way, the fact the Glimpse is a bit more whimsical and fun than what is normally thought of as a security app, actually ends up having security benefits.
"Sexting is actually supporting democracy," says Shevinsky, "because all the folks using Glimpse for very normal stuff end up being cover traffic for people using Glimpse for very serious political activism. And I'm happy about both of those use cases."
Shevinsky plans to wait until Glimpse is a little more robust before promoting it as an activist tool. But from here she is setting her sights high. With her rare combination of entrepreneurial sense and commitment to mission-driven growth, she is aiming to see Glimpse become a significant player in the social landscape.
"If we're going to actually live in an Internet where our data is secure, where necessary data is deleted, and where measures are taken for our privacy, then we'll need a company to be big enough to take market share from Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram. So it's not only about the design and usability, but also about our long-term goals. For both digital rights and women in tech, we really need to become a large, impactful company so we can make a change in the ecosystem."
[Image: Flickr user Paško Tomić]