by Elizabeth Perry
Recently, I spoke to Bjørn Stormorken and Göran Wågstrom, the founders of Idka – a new kind of social platform that does something unheard of: It lets you connect, share, and collaborate with colleagues and friends, while keeping your data private.
Why, when we’re living in a world of sharing information (lots of it) publicly – when our voices are supposed to be heard around the world – would we care about a social platform that is in no way visible to the public? Nothing is searchable; there’s no advertising, no algorithms telling you what you would like to hear (or NOT telling you what they think you DON’T want to hear); no sharing or selling your data to third parties for any purpose; no suggestions about what you might like to buy. … Then, what is there?
Just about everything else you want in a platform.
The founders both had great jobs before they decided to put their ALL into building the platform that is now Idka. What made them put everything aside to build Idka? Why is it so important to them? And, perhaps most importantly, why should it matter to US?
This is their story. …
What is Idka?
Göran Wågström: Idka is a social collaboration platform where privacy is the fundament.
Bjørn Stormorken: It is designed with both the individual and the professional in mind – a professional collaboration and interaction tool, based on privacy and context. Privacy, because there is no tracking or dissemination … no content scanning to read your state of mind, and no use or sale of information for the purpose of exploiting the user, commercially, politically, or emotionally. And context, because the integrity of the conversation, remains intact. In other words, there’s no extraneous interpretation of what you say.
What kind of functionality does Idka provide?
Göran: I think we have more and better functionality than any other platform we’ve seen, because we’ve integrated functionality that today is on different platforms. We have a news feed, voice chat, video chat, cloud storage (which is automatically created for all individuals and groups), and a notes system. Those functions are integrated, which we haven’t seen with any competitors’ solutions.
Bjørn: We offer two things to two different user groups.
For the individual, it’s a functional, user-friendly, clean, and powerful social platform where one can interact and share the way social media should work! However, you interact with yourfriends and contacts, not the friends and contacts that algorithms have found for you. Its strength is not in promoting ‘extrovertedness’ and expanding your network to ridiculous proportions, but in focusing on enriching your interaction with real friends and family.
For the business user, Idka is a simple and extremely cost-effective platform for collaboration and networking for professionals, organizations and companies, with no start-up costs and no investment, as it requires no installation and no user training. It has the exact right balance of functionality versus complexity, delivering what you need for coordination and cooperation, without becoming a complex, case-handling, archiving, client-interaction or logging system, which invariably requires IT support and consultancy work to set up.
What’s the inspiration behind Idka? That AHA Moment?
Göran: I was at another company that I started, after leaving Ericsson. I sold my shares and was thinking maybe I shouldn’t do anything full time anymore. … I had never been on social media myself. I wasn’t interested in this phenomenon. But then, a friend of mine from Ericsson asked me to join him, as he was using a new voice communication technology to build a new Skype. … For a month, I looked into that, and then I came into Social Media. … That was in 2013, and then I saw that there were very narrow solutions. You had to go to different apps to do different things. If you wanted to share a file, you had to use Dropbox, for instance, and if you wanted to chat, you used something else. If you wanted to post, you used Facebook.
So, I thought there was room for integrating, to make a more efficient communication and sharing platform. Then, because Bjørn and I had been both private and business friends for many years, we started to brainstorm about this idea. He comes from, among many other things, the human rights world.
Bjørn had also been thinking about Facebook and other things, and he said, what about this privacy thing. And, when I started digging into Facebook and Google and the business model they had, I was terrified when I understood how much information they collected about people, and that the only asset that they were selling was information about us. I realized then that the incentive that they have to collect more and more information is enormous. And then we started to talk with friends and asking if they were aware of this. We understood then that no one really knew much about this. They didn’t know what they had accepted when they ticked the box under Terms and Conditions. And then the more people we talked to, the more we realized that if people really knew about what was going on with these platforms, the more they would want something else. And that’s when it all started. That’s when we agreed that this should be the profile of this new service … together with all this functionality.
Bjørn: I have, with my background in human rights, been engaged with the right to privacy for decades. I have been negative to the advertising-driven ‘free services’ model, as I have always understood that there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’ out there. I have never had or opened any social media account in my life, as I would not like to make it easy for unknown entities to make money out of my personal life. I am not so naïve that I do not understand that, as long as you have an online presence, which I have as I have email accounts and use the web, there are unknown and unwanted businesses and entities that make money off of me, and that is why I use the phrase ‘make it more difficult for them.’
I cannot say there was an ‘Aha’ moment. Rather, I was waiting for the world to stop this. I was waiting for the moment when suddenly the politicians would wake up and say enough is enough, and to strongly push back against forces that would make the infamous STASI methods of East-Germany look like an amateur play. I was waiting for someone to do something. … You know the feeling. But, there was nobody who, in a forceful manner, made a coherent and strong push.
So, then the question finally came to push. If not me, then who else? In 2012, I started discussing with friends, and then some people with extraordinary powers to get things done, first among them Göran, not just talk about it, and we came together to create Idka, finally.
Why is now the time for your company to exist?
Bjørn: We can now see that Snowden was not a splash of something thrown in the water. It was the movement of the tectonic plates deep down in the oceans and a tsunami building. The number of articles written, TV reports made, people that express their fears and take initiative is continuing to rise – and it will do so for a long time still. As with many things, it takes a longer time than you expect and hope, but the realization that the advertising model for “free services” is toxic is now gaining very strong traction. Not only because people that have been negative from the outset, like us in Idka, but because people that actually helped build the Stalker Economy, such as early investors and feature architects in Facebook and Google, are joining the tsunami and warning about the profound negative impact of the business of collecting, analyzing and the selling sensitive private information without proper informed consent and knowledge.
It is a lot like climate change. It took a very long time for people to understand the dangers of polluting our environment, and those with a vested interest in the Stalker Economy will remain deprecatory and dismissive forever, but in the end both people and politicians came to accept the truth. From the time of this acknowledgement to action and the mass involvement, too much time may have passed, but real change is happening now. This will also happen to the Stalker Economy. The question is only: How much damage to individuals and our societies will be made before politicians gets on top of this?
Idka’s time is now, because enough people, organizations and businesses have become aware. The reason why they don’t act is primarily the lack of alternatives. Idka provides this alternative.
What do people need to know about how most social media platforms work today?
Bjørn: People need to understand two things, which very few actually do today:
The information the social platforms gather about you are much broader and deeper than you understand, and it keeps getting broader and deeper with every new technology that comes along, such as ‘home assistants’, wired appliances, IoT and not the least AI. At the same time, the analytical and predictive capabilities of the social platforms, advertisers, but also criminals and political forces and governments, are growing exponentially, which makes the use and potential use of the information so much more worrisome.
Secondly, they need to understand that the information is used to influence people’s sentiments, political opinions and actual actions (called “nudging” in the social media lingo), which have an impact on our societies at large and politics of whole countries. When the Norwegian armed forces hire Cambridge Analytica, a company largely attributed to influencing both the US elections and Brexit, and also elections in countries like Hungary, to use social media to influence how the Norwegian people feel about spending more money on defense, then you understand the scope of this.
Let’s take Facebook, for example. … Roger McNamee has been on tour lately, talking about the dangers of a Facebook generation …
Göran: People think that when you have a Facebook account, it’s what you like or what you share, etc. that Facebook is aware of. In fact, you don’t need to do anything on Facebook, as long as you have an account. When you tick the box under Terms and Conditions, you have allowed them to collect practically anything about you that you do on the Internet. And, they have a right to commercialize that information and package it in any way. And, they know everything … where you’re surfing, everywhere you click.
How do they do that?
Göran: First of all, practically all of these services put bookmarks and cookies on to your browser, which means they track all your surfing and even where you. That is just one example.
They also know practically everything that you do on your phone, and if you don’t know how to switch it off, which most people don’t, they know where you are all the time. They know if it’s the same type of people that you meet often, and where you meet; they can read your SMS’s; they can record the microphone on your phone; they can read your emails. They have face detection, so they have detected your face, and they can detect you in a ny situation on there services or even outside. And they run all this information in a big data environment so they can make sellable profiles out of you.
For advertising, it’s a certain profile, where they look at what your interests are, your purchasing capacity, your political views, or whatever. But this can be used in other ways. There are services today that companies are using to see what kind of character you are. Do you have Bad Friends? Do you have criminal friends? … Insurance companies use these profiles to decide whether or not they give you insurance, or what price you pay for that insurance, depending on the risk picture of you.
In Scandinavia, we have these kind of credit services, where they check to see whether you pay your bills or not, or if you have bills you haven’t paid, for example. And, there are services that track your behavior on social media, and that is the basis for giving you a loan or not.
Cambridge Analytica bought 200 million profiles of Americans for an election, and they put the content of those profiles into an analysis system, which is based on a propaganda machine, which are used in war situations to convince people, and they ran all these profiles, and then they massaged individual messages to these people, based on their views and opinions on different things. … They knew, with 90 percent certainty, how people would react.
It doesn’t need to be facts. If you read certain papers, for instance, they can come to the conclusion that you’re a Democrat or Republican, based on your actions. Not that they know that definitively.
It’s dangerous from several perspectives. What could happen with that knowledge about you? How could the information be used? If you see what’s happening in the US … the CIA and the NSA … they have practically full access to everything that’s going on on Social media. And they don’t even have to analyze anything; they can just take your profile.
So, what about the things you don’t see? What about this so-called Shadow Profile?
Göran: Yes, they talk about your official Facebook profile, which is based on the facts they have about you, but then there is this ‘Shadow Profile” that you don’t see. A “Shadow Profile” is created by algorithms from all the basic facts the service have collected about you, but turned into a profile that is sellable So, in the instance of Facebook, they are only showing you what they want you to see. Not what you want to see. Based on your “Shadow Profile” they show you what they think will draw your attention and thereby stay on the service as long as possible. You don’t have the choice to look at what you’re interested in – they decide what you’re interested in.
So, I use Facebook because I’ve spent most of my life moving around, and I lose track of my friends. Facebook has helped me find many of them.
Göran: And that’s the driving force behind many people’s use of social media, but then you could enter into the discussion about friendships on Facebook. You may have thousands of friends, but how many friends do you really have?
What is the Stalker Economy? How did we get here?
Bjørn: The Stalker Economy is a commercial ecosystem, enabled by Internet and social media platforms largely, that is built on stalking people. That is, in a covert way, those platforms follow every move you make and collect every piece of information that the user leaves behind. In addition to that, they cajole you into leaving information that you would otherwise not leave, in order to produce a highly valuable raw material. That raw material is then processed (accumulated, enriched with raw materials from other sources, analyzed, categorized and packaged) into even more valuable ‘finished goods’ sold on hundreds of exchanges in real time and used for profits, political or societal influence or criminal gains.
We got there thanks to a combination of three things:
1. We live in the ‘post fact’ age of narcissism, which makes it seem worthwhile for many to expose their lives for a gain that is clearly desirable to many today
2. Politicians and lawmakers are far behind the curve and have no clue about what is actually happening. It is fully possible to curtail and control the Stalker Economy by laws and regulations, like with any other ecosystem before it on the planet
3. Weakening of public institutions and the free press and the phenomenal increase in the powers of vested interests and lobbyists, influencing the decision-making process within public institutions
So, Idka’s mission is to provide a solution to all of the above?
Göran: Well, Idka is the opposite of all of that. For us, the users will always own their own data. So, for us, the users are not the product. For us, the product is our platform, which is a tool to allow them to communicate and share how they want, with friends, family, and colleagues. You should know that you own all the content on our platform. If you delete it, it’s gone. … So, it’s a protected environment where you are the owner of your information – not us, or anyone else.
Who is your ideal user?
Göran: There are three types of situations: It is for collaboration. So, it’s for organizations and companies; for families; and for communication and sharing with close friends.
Bjørn: Really, we have created it for everyone. That is why we have emphasized ease of use, cleanliness in UX, consistent logic, etc. We want people to realize that they need to start paying a small monthly sum to protect their privacy and express themselves freely, and then give them an easy-to-use, light-touch tool to do just that.
Who are your competitors?
Bjørn: All platforms that fund themselves by using your private information to produce derived sellable data without informed and full consent and operating in a non-regulated space, which is pretty much everyone else.
What do you offer that no one else has?
Bjørn: Idka has the exact right balance between functionality and ease of implementation, between advanced features and ease of use, in combination with high security and absolute privacy. That’s unique in one package, he says. And we are constantly evolving the product that is Idka, but always mindful of our goals: No IT competence or support should be needed to implement and use Idka and logical and simple UX enabling use without training; and lastly, keeping sharing and interaction in context in order to protect the integrity of the conversations on our platform.
So, you’re not competing with services like Slack? …
Göran: Slack is practically a group chat platform. If you want storage, you have to integrate with another service like Dropbox or Google Drive.
For us, in a business, the most essential thing is sharing files. That’s a very central part of how you work. That’s why we have cloud storage. Also, if you need to have another service outside like Google Drive or Dropbox or whatever, then you open up to not having a privacy-based solution. Google Drive, for instance, normally they’re scanning everything that you store. In Idka it’s not like that.
How will you make money?
Göran: We will make money through a subscription-based model. We believe when people start to understand that they are paying an incredibly high price today, not in monetary terms but by giving up their privacy and not at least supporting the distortion of the democratic system, they will find it well worth to pay a small monthly fee to be able to connect and share in privacy with your most valuable friends, family and collegues..
Bjørn: There are two types of plans, one for the individual user, and another for business users. You can read more here: https://www.idka.com/en/payment-terms#user-content-subscription-service
What or who is your biggest threat?
Bjørn: Indifference. Indifference and an ‘it will not happen to me’ or ‘it will not be that bad’ attitude, have enabled a lot of very bad things to happen in many countries in history.
Göran: I mean, in a way it’s people. The biggest threat is that people don’t care at all … that they know about what Facebook, and Google, and Instagram are doing, and still don’t care about it. On the other hand, we don’t need 2 Billion people to make this a very interesting business. To be able to develop Idka, we need a fraction of that, to develop the long term Idka service. I think there is a huge potential out there. We don’t know what Google or Facebook are going to do about all this criticism they’re getting, but I think within five years, virtually everyone will know about what’s happening. I would be very surprised if people stayed on those platforms if they don’t change.
Bjørn: Networks operate on gravity. The biggest mass has the largest attraction. So, to paraphrase Winston Churchill: we offer blood, toil, tears and sweat, but the result is really worthwhile on a personal level as well as for our societies and our way of life.
Is the outlook positive on this?
Göran: That’s a big question. … Look at it like this: You pay with another currency for these other services, and you pay an extremely high price. Facebook, for example makes an average of $25 on you and me each year in advertising revenue. So you pay in another way. You pay with your identity. In effect, you give away your person to them. I mean, I can just ask myself that question. As I understand the issues with these other services, and as I see the benefits of what we’ve built – the ability to discuss, share, work, express freely and safely with them – I would have no problem paying for it.
What do you love about your team, and what makes yours the right team for the job?
Göran: First of all, our investors, the team and Björn and myself are addicted to this. We really believe in what we’re doing, and I think we have the right understanding of the issues and the problems we are solving. We have a very good technical team, and we’ve done fantastic things, and built a fantastic platform with very few people. When we go to people, few can believe that this has been done with such a small team.
Bjørn: We have a young but super dedicated team. Our very small office has people from Hungary (and Israel), Italy (to the extent a person from Sicily is Italian), a Londoner (almost), a Persian, a Kurd of Turkish nationality, in addition to Swedes and Norwegians. I believe that this brings real value to the table. But in addition to a fantastic team match, they are each dedicated, highly talented individuals with complementary skills.
Where would you like to see Idka five years from now?
Bjørn: I see Idka as a large, global cooperation and interaction platform, to be used whether in individual or organizational capacities, as the primary platform, but with the continued complementary use of other (hopefully regulated) social media for expressive, extended network and functionality for which Idka is not ideal.
Göran: We hope to have positioned Idka as the obvious choice for privacy- concerned people and organizations anywhere in the world. If you want to focus on real communication and sharing with real friends, family and colleagues, then Idka is for you.”
What gets you up in the morning?
Bjørn: Minus 8 Celsius, sun and a meter of snow. Working with an inspiring international team to create an important product that can serve a meaningful global role.
Göran: I’m absolutely dedicated to providing a service … to giving people an alternative platform, with all the functionality they need to be able to communicate freely with long-term friends, family and colleagues.
What Bjørn and Göran are building, comes amidst much public discussion about this so-called Stalker Economy threatening our health as individuals, and even our Democracy.
Bjørn and Göran aren’t the only ones talking about the negative effects of social media. One of the early investors in Facebook and Google, in fact – Roger McNamee – has been very vocal about the threat that social media pose (see links below).
“Facebook, Google, and other social media platforms make their money from advertising. As with all ad-supported businesses, that means advertisers are the true customers, while audience members are the product,” writes McNamee in the Washington Monthly article, entitled. How to Fix Facebook, Before It Fixes Us.
Elizabeth Perry is Co-founder and Creative Director at White Bull Summits.