But law enforcement officials have at times expressed frustration with apps that offer the kind of end-to-end encryption that Wickr uses, particularly if the platforms aren’t proactively working XMatch to combat criminal activity.
Wickr, an early player in the world of end-to-end encrypted messengers, works like most privacy-focused messaging apps. Users communicate with individuals or groups in an encrypted format, which strips messages of identifying details. That ensures only the sender and receiver can ever see their content, leaving hardly any trace of details about the conversation which could be accessed by law enforcement or Amazon. That technology, along with settings that allow for self-deleting messages, has made Wickr an attractive tool for many who seek privacy, including individuals conducting criminal activity.
Wickr requires no personal information to sign up, unlike its competitors WhatsApp and Signal, asking only for a username and password. Once on the app, users can directly connect with others individually or in group chats via search or an invite.
Its closed system means people typically use other parts of the internet to connect before moving to Wickr. That funnel from public to private spaces is oftentimes seen in child exploitation, according to Victoria Baines, an expert on child exploitation crimes who has worked with the U.K.’s National Crime Agency, Europol and the European Cybercrime Centre.
“Social media or more open spaces, or online gaming environments, will be used by adults to recruit – to approach – children to have more private contact in more private spaces,” she said.
On Reddit, nearly a dozen subreddits, some with more than 50,000 members, serve as hubs for exchanging Wickr handles. In the most popular Wickr subreddit, posts about teens or children are posted on a near-daily basis. Many posts refer to incest, seeking “bad” or “prvy” parents. “I love homemade vids, especially ones with the whole family,” reads one typical post accompanied by a Wickr user name.
In other subreddits, users explicitly ask teenagers to communicate with them via Wickr and solicit homemade images and videos of incest. “I just got my twelve year old cousin (f) into Wickr and she wants some new people to text, preferably girls to start her off,” one post reads. Others are accompanied by non-explicit photos of people who appear to be under 18.
It’s an issue that some Reddit users are well aware of, and some subreddits have banned posting Wickr handles because of their association with child sexual abuse material. One subreddit devoted to meth use pinned a post to the top of the discussion forum saying: “It’s been brought to my attention that people are making posts about ‘taboo’ and ‘perv’ chats posting there Wickr handles are really people looking to trade child porn and discuss pedophilia.”
The posts are so numerous that other subreddits have begun to take note. In one activist subreddit dedicated to calling out “degenerate” communities, a post from January reads, “The wickr pages on reddit are just full of pervs sending cp around to each other. How do we get this banned?”