Governments and commercial companies are using chat apps to get access to your data and metadata. As a result there’s a strong call for private and decentralized messaging applications. This news evolution of messaging apps started a few years ago. Chat used to be very public on the early versions of the internet, but with the rise of government observation and commercial gain, there is a rising need for privacy. End-to-end encryption came into play, but that turns out to be not enough. Your metadata is just as valuable, and now the call for blockchain technology and decentralization is growing stronger.
Early days of messaging applications
When the internet became a public domain in the early nineties, chat was very limited. People could use Internet Relay Chat (IRC) for live chat as we know it today, and they could use the Newsgroups and leave messages on a message board. As the internet matured, the world wide web came into existence and chats became popular on community oriented websites. It didn’t take long before companies made their own standalone chat applications for desktop computers. ICQ, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger were among the most popular apps in the business.
With the increase of internet speeds and rise of cable internet in the 2000s, it became possible to video chat. Google Talk, nowadays known as Google Hangouts, and Skype are still active today. On top of that the rise of the smartphone moved internet usage from our desktop to the palm of our hand.
In 2009 WhatsApp launched for on iOS and later on other operating systems. Four years later the messaging app had 200 million active users per month and it was valuated 1.5 billion dollars. As a result Facebook bought Whatsapp one year later, and in 2016 they introduced voice calls and video calls. Around the same time in China there’s was an app called Weixin. It hit the market in 2011. After being on the market for chat one year, the app became WeChat. It’s now one of the leading platforms on the Chinese market. The app is a combination of chat and social media platforms like Instagram. Currently 40% of all mobile payments in China’s cashless society go through the app’s payment service WeChat Pay.
Privacy is the big elephant in the room
Thankfully consumers are becoming more aware of privacy issues involving social media. Talk about a certain topic with a couple of friends, and Instagram will show you a related advertisement in the coming hours. That’s where we are now. However, billions of people enjoy using WhatsApp , WeChat and many other chat applications.
Thankfully privacy has become a major talking point in society. Banks, software companies, other commercial enterprises, are all vulnerable to hackers. The result is that creditcard information or other private data comes into the wrong hands. Identity theft is therefore a real problem. Another issue is that these chat applications use your time and chat history as marketing data. Whatsapp might be end-to-end encrypted, but Facebook knows exactly how long and with whom you’ve been talking. They know your social media history and connect the dots. Unsurprisingly, also Apple’s iMessage collects metadata. In addition it might be cool to use WeChat’s payment options, but we can’t say it’s really private.
Governments can always use the law to get access to user data and chat history. That’s why centralized servers are in theory such a big threat to privacy. End-to-end encryption already prevents outsiders to get access to char history, and several privacy oriented apps allow messages to be deleted over time. Currently messaging apps like Telegram and Signal are among the most popular privacy-focused chat apps on the market, but even these apps can ultimately be used to track its users.
In 2016 there was a court case where developer Open Whisper needed to provide user names, addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses from Signal users. However, the only data Signal had access to was the account creation date and the most recent user login date. Even this type of data can show that a user was online after a certain date.
Decentralized messaging applications
Twenty years ago chat applications were a novelty. The internet was still innocent and relatively free from commercial greed and government observation. At the same time the internet was not yet at the center of our society. Quite frankly, it is now. To escape the world wide web of greed and observation, we need to create a new network that can exist without these Orwellian influences. Decentralization is key.
Blockchain technology will have a key role in creating the future of decentralized messaging applications. We already have end-to-end encryption, but centralized servers still log certain metadata. Using blockchain technology will add another layer of privacy to chat applications. Users get more responsibility over their own data as they hold the private key to it. The technology also means there’s no single point of failure. Even if a hacker or thief gets access to a phone, it won’t hurt the entire ecosystem. The complete lack of centralization means that users have only access to the data they have been granted access to by peers or themselves.
Developers already working on your privacy
One of the most prominent developments in the decentralization of messaging applications is Telegram. They raised 1.7 billion dollars to develop the Telegram Open Network. This blockchain would be used to power Telegram, even though they are not having some issues with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Thankfully there’s a lot more happening in the space for decentralized messaging applications.
Last month a Dutch developer released an early version of a chat app called Whatsat. This is a chat application allowing almost free chat messaging using Bitcoin’s Lightning Network. The only data it stores, is that there was an exchange of data between two wallets, while the app creates a new wallet every time a chat takes place. At the same time cryptographer David Chaum made his own privacy-oriented and blockchain-powered XX Messenger. This app shreds all data into pieces, before storing it on the blockchain. In addition Canadian non-profit Open Privacy is working on a decentralized messaging app called Cwtch. Zcash is the driving force behind the development of the app. Cwtch focuses on privacy, decentralization, and is metadata resistant. In its current state the app isn’t really user friendly. Developers need to work more before the app is ready for mainstream adoption.
As an ultimate and final example, Pundi Labs now has the Blok-on-Blok (BOB) smartphone available for pre-order. Besides being a crypto-friendly Android phone, this smartphone also has a blockchain mode. Each BOB serves as a node in the network. All communication goes through the blockchain instead of through centralized services like mobile phone operators and internet service providers. It’s still early, but I’m pretty confident that even general internet access will move into this direction.
All this shows that there are plenty of projects that have the potential to disrupt the current hegemony of WhatsApp. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen. Currently there are already some blockchain-powered messaging applications on the market. For example, Dust and SenseChat, while BeeChat is mainly used in South Korea.
While governments and commercial companies keep abusing our privacy, the call for true privacy will grow every day. As it grows louder, blockchain developers will heed the call.
Also published on Medium.