Alumnus Will Ackerly's Fast-Growing Startup is Striving to Protect Your Emails

Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Will Ackerly

Helping Power And Influence: Alumnus Will Ackerly's role as an innovator and high-tech rebel tied him for No. 21 in Fortune's 2015 "40 Under 40" list of the most influential young people in business (September, 2015).

Will Ackerly spent the first eight years of his professional career under a shroud of secrecy as a technologist with the clandestine National Security Agency (NSA). His computer programming skills helped America track worldwide terrorists and high-tech threats, and kept the government one step ahead of developments in cloud computing, encrypted communication, and data protection.

Now in the private sector, Ackerly has turned his attention to inventing technology that can protect your email and data from criminal hackers desiring to steal it.

And, the secret is out on his work. The 2004 electrical engineering alumnus has been featured in numerous media, including Fast Company, PC Magazine, Time, and Computerworld. He also was named one of Fortune's 2015 "40 Under 40," alongside other technology leaders changing the way we live.

Ackerly's startup, Virtru, is setting a new standard for digital privacy, and is the first company to make email privacy accessible to everyone. Its single plug-in empowers people and businesses to control who receives, reviews, and retains their digital information-wherever it travels, throughout its lifespan.

Emails are hard to protect because very rarely does any single person or system control the only copy. Any given email will have copies made and stored in at least four different places: the sender's computer, the sender's service provider, the recipient's computer, and recipient's provider. Ackerly points out that unless the email is encrypted end-to-end, a rarity in the computer industry, there are at least four different places for a hacker to reach out to get a stored copy, let alone intercept copies of email in transit.

"The number and sophistication of the players are increasing dramatically, and the rules of the game are changing very quickly as well," says Ackerly, from Virtru's offices in downtown Washington, D.C. "Cloud computing is changing the reality of cybersecurity postures and architectures, and there is a ton of catch-up that everyone needs to do here."

Virtru's edge is that it works within the Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo webmail interfaces, and doesn't need an external client, which was no small engineering feat, according to Ackerly. Email messages using Virtru are encrypted in the Trusted Data Format (TDF), on which he authored a paper in 2008 while working for the NSA. The technology is patented, and for now, the company is focusing on email, but encryption for texting and Instant Messaging is on the horizon.

"What gets me up in the morning is offering great security and privacy to individuals, and it is something I'll always insist on being offered for free to all users," Ackerly says. "Our bread and butter is offering email and file security to companies that need to share sensitive personal or otherwise regulated data…What makes Virtru better is that we focus on the user experience, so that we make using the strongest encryption as easy and unobtrusive as we can."