John and Will Ackerly each had stints in the government during the surveillance build-up of the past two decades — John as a Bush administration technology adviser and Will as an engineer at the National Security Agency.
Today the two brothers from the District play very different roles: helping individuals and corporations evade snooping of all sorts through an encrypted communications app called Virtru.
“Our focus is on the 99.99 percent of folks who know they’ve got to secure their content, but it’s always been too hard and complicated before,” said CEO John Ackerly.
For the layperson, it’s hard to tell whether Virtru’s system is any better than its competition.
But on ease of use, the app unambiguously delivers. I was sending encrypted emails from one account to another within 30 seconds of downloading the company’s app for Android.
And when I switched to my horribly slow, virus-ridden laptop to test Virtru’s browser plug-in, I found it lightning-fast and glitch-free despite a crummy Internet connection.
But the real fun comes with the extra features in the app. Virtru lets you delete or revoke access to emails you’ve sent. It has an “expiration” function so you can set emails to erase themselves after a certain amount of time.
Another useful feature forbids the sender from forwarding. Someone could sidestep that restriction by copying and pasting into another browser, but even that could change soon: A company spokesperson said tracking whether email content has been Ctrl-C’d is “an issue and feature we’re working on.”
Virtru’s website advertises “end-to-end encryption,” a term usually reserved for communications that can be accessed only by sender and recipient. According to the company, that’s the case for the individual users who download the free app.
But if you’re signed up through your employer, you should know that an administrator somewhere in your company might be reading your emails. For the businesses and government agencies it sells to, Virtru builds in features that can closely monitor employees’ communication.
At $60 per user, these corporate accounts bring in a lot of money for Virtru. Staffers at HBO use it to send movie scripts and limit whom they get forwarded to, perhaps trying to prevent leaks like the one that brought us last year’s first four “Game of Thrones” episodes ahead of time. A contract with state government in Maryland means some 10,000 police officers and law enforcement staffers use the app to encrypt their communications.
Keep in mind that even corporate emails set to “expire” can be retroactively accessed if a corporate customer so chooses. For private businesses, that means a technology administrator could pull up even your private encrypted emails in the event of an audit. For government officials using the app in Maryland, that could mean a Freedom of Information Act request from a journalist, according to Ackerly.
And it’s not just big corporations and government agencies passing sensitive data through Virtru’s servers. The Pentagon pays Juncture Consulting, a 10-person company based in Woodbridge, Va., to evaluate retiring soldiers’ health to determine how much disability compensation they will get.
Chief operating officer Michelle de Stefano says the physicians she hires handle that work on government computers. But managing those employees’ sensitive information is a different story, she says, so she started paying about $120 a year for a basic version of Virtru’s software.
“I don’t want to be responsible for screwing up somebody’s identity information and having something bad happen to it,” said de Stefano. “I don’t want to be that weak link.”
COST: Free for individuals, $60 per person for businesses
OPERATING SYSTEM: Android, iOS, Gmail, Yahoo and Outlook
CREATOR: John and Will Ackerly
USER RATINGS: iTunes, (38 ratings); Google Play, (201 ratings)
REVIEW’S BOTTOM LINE: Free NSA-caliber encryption and a 5-year-old could use it.