The tech industry is scratching its collective head about a new acquisition by Twitter of a startup company that develops security software for Android smartphones. Whisper Systems, founded by the larger-than-life Moxie Marlinspike, a security researcher, cryptographics specialist and manic maritime enthusiast.
The fit seems strange as Whisper focuses on on-device security software for Android phones – although Twitter may be looking for brains, not products, as it has taken some stick for the lack of security on its globe-spanning microblogging service.
No terms were announced, and the only word from Twitter was: “The Whisper Systems team is joining Twitter starting today. As part of our fast-growing engineering team, they will be bringing their technology and security expertise to Twitter’s products and services. We’re happy to have Moxie Marlinspike and Stuart Anderson onboard.”
Since Whisper consists of just these two men, the deal probably didn’t make a dent in Twitter’s bank account, but it could provide the company with very valuable Web security skills — Marlinspike developed tools like SSLStrip that exposes flaws in supposedly secure sites. Twitter has come under repeated criticism for not using HTTPS be default – something even Facebook finally got onto.
In what seems like a twist stolen from the worst caricatures of heartless capitalism, the buyout has reportedly left Egyptian political activists somewhat in the lurch.
According to UK tech blog, The Register, Whisper suspended its cellphone encryption service, so that Twitter could integrate its privacy-enabling technology into Whisper’s systems.
The encryption software, called RedPhone, basically allowed Egyptians to make phone calls on their Android devices without having to worry about their conversations being intercepted by state spies.
Speaking to The Reg, Chris Soghian, a privacy researcher with the Open Society Foundations said “the timing couldn’t be worse”.
“Today is Egypt’s first election after it threw out its old regime, and the only encrypted voice communication tool for Android goes dark. This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for people in Egypt.”
Twitter officials have, apparently, refused to comment on why it was necessary that the RedPhone service be shut down.
Whisper itself has been incredibly quiet on the matter. Its website, offered no explanation for the shut down, saying only that the “RedPhone service will be interrupted immediately, but FlashBack users have a month to pull off any backup data they would like before that service also goes offline”.