College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

A Tweet Away from the President

A tweet propelled him to President Obama's side; now Navroop Mitter is developing technology that could enable us to text in our votes for the Commander in Chief.

By Andrew Thurston

“Not that he didn't make the most of the opportunity. If the press wanted to know how the man in the pink turban got to the President's side, it would also hear about text message encryption.”

The first tweet Navroop Pal Singh Mitter posted that morning was his last as a relative unknown.

The President was about to brief the press on the payroll tax cut extension. When the Commander in Chief and the Vice President did emerge, Mitter (CAS’02, ENG’02) stood between the two leaders at the podium. And, with help from an arresting rose-colored dastar, eclipsed them both. As the cameras rolled, the “Man in the Pink Turban,” #pinkturban, began to trend on Twitter. Who was he? Why was he with the President? Mitter had become the Web’s hot topic; ABC News wanted an interview.

Two days of fame later, entrepreneur Mitter joked he was going to blend into the background once more.

Today, the pink turban has become something of a personal brand. If you go to the website of Mitter’s secure mobile messaging company, Gryphn, you’ll see him wearing it in his official photo and at company events.

Mitter accepts that much of the attention he received in 2012 focused on his Sikh religion, rather than the reason he was at the White House—his position as a tech start-up founder. “I wear a turban every day, so I’m more than comfortable with my identity—that was a choice I made.”

Not that he didn’t make the most of the opportunity. If the press wanted to know how the man in the pink turban got to the President’s side, it would also hear about text message encryption.

This Message Will Self-Destruct...

Since his early high school days, Mitter had been involved in tech start-ups. As a teen, he cofounded a computer software firm; at BU, he combined his dual degree studies with a job at a company trying to “reduce the cost of computing technology for the Third World.” Despite working at multinational computing and consulting firms after graduation, the start-up bug proved hard to shake.

In 2011, Mitter cofounded Gryphn. The company offers a free secure text messaging app and is developing “a mobile security platform” that other applications could use. At the moment, he says, most of us are pretty lax about mobile security. We’ll send information for a business deal by text and dash off instant messages that include our home addresses—we rarely think what might happen if we send the text to the wrong number or our phone gets stolen. Encrypting a text message can be incredibly complicated, so we take a risk.

“We just made encryption of mobile messaging across the text messages we send every day—phone number to phone number—identical to how your text messages traverse today,” says Mitter of his company’s technology. “They don’t go through my server, it’s not a chat client, you’re not setting up a user name; you’re not going through any of those headaches.”

The Gryphn Secure Text Messaging app also allows senders the sort of security power usually only wielded in Mission Impossible—you can set a message to self-destruct. After a short time—roughly 15 seconds, but soon to be user-determined—your text will delete itself from the recipient’s device.

Mitter says encryption technology can benefit organizations that value privacy, including financial service providers and defense contractors, but he sees a broader potential for secure messaging—a future where “biometrics in identification technologies” allows, for instance, doctors to send dosing instructions by text.

“If you say, ‘We’re going to start accepting orders from a mobile device for a doctor to go, Administer 1,000mg of drug X versus 100mg of drug Y,’ you want to know who’s behind the screen giving those orders.”

Biometrics could also allow people to vote “from your couch with more security than you have at the polling booth today.”

Tweeting From the White House

Mitter’s text vote software is probably a few years and patents away, so just how did technology propel him to the White House in 2012?

The President’s social engagement team, pitching an extension to the payroll tax cut, asked what people would do with the extra money. Mitter took to Twitter to share his view.

The tweet stood out from the crowd and bagged Mitter an invite to a presidential speech on tax policy. The morning of the address, Mitter plucked a pink tie from a “menagerie of color” options in his closet and then just picked a turban to match. The moment he did, fame beckoned.