A little more than a year ago, Amazon, specifically Amazon Web Services, flashed its stacks of cash as it announced it was buying up the end-to-end encrypted messaging app Wickr. AWS users could suddenly use Wickr’s services, and some reporters speculated Amazon could have been trying to make a move in the increasingly crowded encrypted messaging space.
That’s much more unlikely now as Amazon announced Monday it was nixing its secure messaging app Wickr Me. The tech giant said that Wickr would instead be focused on business and public sector communications, specifically through AWS Wickr and Wickr Enterprise. The company will no longer allow registrations for Wickr Me after Dec. 31, and a year later, at the tail end of 2023, the app will be but a puff of smoke and a memory.
Wickr was worth in the ballpark of $60 million when it was purchased, but just a few years ago Wickr was spouting off about its features that encrypted conference calls, which was a major evolution in the encrypted messaging space. Amazon’s other messaging app, Chime, does videoconferencing without end-to-end encryption, though it does conduct AES 256-bit encryption in calls and chat. In September, Amazon finally added end-to-end encryption for the data sent to users through its Ring doorbells.
The company added that they would be working out ways for users to preserve their data, but the shift away from consumer apps points to Amazon’s ongoing crush during this ongoing tech company recession. The tech giant is currently working through revolving rounds of layoffs and company buyouts that will likely flow over into the new year. Earlier this month, Amazon became the first company ever to lose $1 trillion in stock value.
But AWS apparently wants Wickr to focus on its business and government customers much more than its regular users. Among those public entities using Wickr is U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That contract was reportedly worth around $900,000 when first reported in September last year. Sure, the CBP wants encrypted communications, but Wickr can delete all messages sent via the app, which is an increasingly dangerous proposition for open government advocates. People like Maryland Governor Larry Hogan have been cited using Wickr while claiming they aren’t subject to the state’s open records law. Amazon, for their part, have promoted Wickr’s data retention feature that lets a host store their agency’s communications.
These government and business contracts are apparently worth enough money that AWS doesn’t feel the need to cut off itself from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) despite years of protest. Yet Wickr itself does not exactly have a squeaky clean record, even before it was bought out by Amazon. Wickr has been used to buy drugs and other illicit items on the dark web, according to reports. Of course, Wickr was not alone in people using encryption to facilitate shady dealings. Telegram, for example, has been widely used by hacking groups, white supremacists, and crypto crooks.
Other major messaging apps like Facebook Messenger are still barely testing the waters of encryption. Facebook-owner Meta also announced its other messaging app WhatsApp would be getting more group messaging features that also include end-to-end encryption.
Update 11/23/22 at 4:55 p.m. ET: This post was updated to clarify Chime’s encryption and include information of AWS’ data retention feature.