In the Mission Impossible films, a message self-destructs in five seconds. Snapchat has turned that concept into a viral hit with 80 million active users.
Now, Singapore startup Digify is creating a Snapchat for documents, specifically, images, PDFs, and Microsoft Office files. In theory, it allows users to send secret documents to recipients without worrying that they will make unauthorized copies.
Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino would find it useful, after his script for upcoming movie The Hateful Eight leaked to the press. He ended up suing Gawker Media and modified his script, wasting time, money, and energy.
Digify’s usefulness extends beyond the entertainment industry. Technology companies could send blueprints to outsourced development firms and prevent the designs from being seen by competitors. Marketing agencies could pass pitches to potential clients without worrying that they would give the idea to firms that would do it more cheaply. Meanwhile, contractors could send specifications to bidders and ensure that only the winner would have a permanent copy.
But aside from the ephemeral nature of the file transmission, the comparison between Digify and Snapchat ends. While Snapchat is, well, a chat app, Digify is primarily a secure way to send and view documents. It has Dropbox integration, making it suitable for professionals who get work done on their mobile devices.
“The core of our technology is document streaming. Think of it as a YouTube for documents,” explains Augustine Lim, co-founder and CEO of Digify. This means that unlike Snapchat, which stores photos from the sender on the receiver’s phone, Digify only stores a file on its server from the time it is sent to the moment it self-destructs.
Short of stealing the sender’s phone, this feature prevents the receiver from downloading and distributing a copy of the file since it is viewable only using the app.
It matters for another reason: when a file is deleted on your smartphone or computer, it becomes hidden rather than erased. This means that it is retrievable with expensive forensics software unless the storage space is overridden by another file. Digify avoids this challenge by storing the file only on its servers.
That’s not the only safeguard Digify has. The iOS app alerts a file sender whenever a viewer tries a screen capture, then immediately removes access to the file. Mobile versions of Digify can stop image capture through remote viewing tools like Apple Airplay or Droid @ Screen. The Android and desktop versions go even further: it disables screen capture whenever the document is being viewed. The desktop app also prevents itself from being run in a virtual machine (VM), which is a means of enabling screen capture since it happens outside the VM.
In the backend, the startup protects all user files using AES–256 encryption, and claims that engineers have no access to the encryption key (which decrypts the files) and the file content. For security reasons, Lim could not elaborate on where it stores the key.
Of course, foolproof security doesn’t exist, and Digify’s measures can be overcome. A file receiver could snap pictures of the document before the timer runs out. The startup is exploring ways to prevent that, such as adding watermarks containing the receiver’s email to act as a “psychological” barrier to prevent photo taking.
But while the measure could prevent documents from going public as it would expose the leaker, watermarking probably won’t be as effective in stopping a financial document from ending up on the desk of the user’s competitor.
Wackier ways to overcome Digify’s defenses exist, such as getting someone with exceptionally good memory or fast handwriting to make notes. Then again, addressing these problems requires technology that lies on the border of what’s possible, so Digify isn’t the only want dealing with this issue.
Besides, Digify is meant only as an additional safeguard for exchanging information between two individuals with prior established trust.
“If your recipient is taking pictures with another device even though you send it using Digify, signaling that the content is confidential, you’ve got a bigger problem,” says Lim.
Is the barrier high enough?
Digify is still a work in progress, despite having a lot of cool technology underneath. Available on iOS, Android, PC, and Mac (private beta), it is free to use. The startup will add a premium version soon, after user testing on what functionality to include.
It may be a few iterations away from becoming a killer app. The tricky part about technology is that user adoption will be slow if its usefulness does not far surpass the cost of adopting it. In other words, users may not have enough incentive to sign up with Digify if all it takes to copy a document is to snap a picture with another device.
Square faces the same dilemma by building its technology on top of credit cards as opposed to developing a replacement for credit cards. Tech writer Ben Thompson explains:
When the benefit is greater than the pain of establishing a new network, a new technology can breakthrough. However, if the benefit is only incremental, then the status quo is likely to prevail.
In Digify’s case, the process of onboarding new users isn’t exactly smooth. If I send a file to non-users, they would receive an email asking them to download the app. After installing the software, they would need to sign up and verify their email accounts before they can view the file. That’s a long process.
So, in order for Digify to become ubiquitous, it may need to do two things. First, it needs to figure out ways to address the so-called “analog hole”, a well-known problem in which anyone can circumvent a file’s copyright protection by making a recording or snapping a picture of its content. While Lim says that Digify “has gone further than many expensive industry solutions in ensuring that the user content stays protected on the recipient device,” addressing this issue could make the company’s product far more valuable.
Second, it has to make onboarding simpler, perhaps by adding Facebook or LinkedIn authentication or removing the need for email verification, although Lim says the measure prevents user identity spoofing (Update on October 30: the app now features Google authentication). It could take a page from Send Anywhere, another file sharing app which introduced a novel way to authenticate users: it sends the receiver a six-digit PIN and a QR code which they must input or scan to view the document. Digify is exploring that method, although Lim argues it is still not as secure as traditional user sign-ups.
The company has some time to figure it out. It has raised S$589,000 (US$475,000) from Red Dot Ventures, and another S$500,000 (US$404,000) from TECS, a Singapore government grant. It is seeking more investors.
For Lim, working on Digify is a big risk. He left a cushy job in government service to start his company, which initially began as an enterprise document management software company. It made decent revenue quickly, but Lim wound down that business to work on a more global product.
“The road ahead is more uncertain with a completely new product and a freemium business model. On balance, we decided for it as we thought it served an unaddressed need, is more differentiated, and can scale to a larger number of users across different geographies,” says Lim.
On becoming an entrepreneur, he adds: “I’m at a stage of my life where if I don’t do this now, I will regret.”