From ancient antiquity to the present, we have been using different modes of communication. It started with letters. Conveying a message to others took days, sometimes even a month. Later on, technology evolved, and that changed the way we communicate. Today, messages are the default way to communicate with other people. We usually chat with others with the help of messengers.
These changes have brought a significant impact on communications. Each evolution has changed the speed of communication. Let us discuss the messaging methods we have used from the past to the present.
Letters: It is one of the oldest methods. From early BC, people used this method to pass information. This method was relatively slow, and if the weather conditions were terrible, our letter wouldn't reach the other destination. People find it difficult. So the letter was replaced by the telegraph.
Fax and telegraph machine: The telegraph made long-distance communication (inter-continental) easier. This was the first form of electric communication in which sounds and visual representations were used. However, it became time-consuming and difficult to decipher the messages that were transmitted. Thus, telephones succeeded in telegraphs.
Telephone: Telephones were the marvel of their time. The prospect of hearing a loved one’s voice even when they were thousands of miles away made everyone go barmy. But at first, the telephone was widely used in government sectors, and then slowly, adopted by people in their households.
Pagers: Enter text messaging. Pagers were widely used in the 1980s. People found it useful because it was small and portable. They could carry it everywhere and send messages to others. Some pagers had the option to send voice notes. But as technology further developed, pagers also became delayed messaging services.
SMS: Mobile phones used wireless networks to send SMS near-instantly. In fact, SMS is an acronym for Short Message Service. After the evolution and adoption of mobile phones, SMS became the go-to standard for text-based communication. However, the latency of the messages was dependent on the strength and availability of the wireless network. If there are any network issues, there may be a delay in sending and receiving messages.
Instant messaging: Instant messengers are the messengers that we use today - Facebook messenger, Instagram messenger, Whatsapp, Viber, Threema, Telegram, Wickr Me, Wire, Apple iMessage, Signal, Element, Session, BChat. People can send and receive messages in real-time with their friends and family. Instant messaging has also become popular by adding additional features such as voice calls, video calls, sharing files, voice notes, images, videos, payments, etc. But there’s a catch. They profit by commoditizing your data. Let’s explore this.
At present, most of us are using Web2.0 applications. Web2.0 applications are predominantly centralized. Users of Web2.0 applications need to provide their personal details in order to use them. These details are stored in centralized servers. Centralized architectures, due to their innate nature, are susceptible to hacks that lay bare your personal details for the world to see. Moreover, these apps bend the rules for governments and regulatory bodies. Besides, your personal data is handled by people who work for the firm.
By submitting your age, date of birth, gender, social security number, bank details, and credit card details on the application, you’re providing a digital footprint of yourself to the insiders of the company, hackers, and government agencies.
Each centralized application tracks and collects your device’s IP address, location, and other sensitive metadata, which is then shared with third parties. For example, with the help of your location data, local vendors may promote their business by sending targeted ads to your inbox.
Due to these issues, centralized applications came under the scrutiny of for-privacy NGOs, privacy-enthusiasts, the media, and the general public. People who have become aware of this are looking at alternatives to centralized apps. As a result, centralized applications began implementing end-to-end encryption as a means of protecting user data.
But what is encryption and how does it protect our data? Let’s take a look at it.
The Hebern Rotor Machine
There are many kinds of encrypted applications that are used. In the early 1900s, the Hebern Rotor Machine, an electronic device, was used to send encrypted messages from one person to another. The person on the other end can decrypt the message using another Hebern rotor machine. Here, a polyalphabetic substitution cipher was used.
The Enigma was developed by Hugo Koch in 1919. It was the device used by Nazi Germany during the Second World War to send and receive encrypted messages. These encrypted messengers played a significant role in sending secret messages during the war. Encryption in Enigma was done by using the iterative cipher.
Data Encryption Standard (DES)
In the late 1900s, a better version of encrypted messengers evolved. The American government adopted the Data Encryption Standard (DES) developed by IBM. The algorithm takes the plain text in 64-bit blocks and converts them into ciphertext using 48-bit keys. DES uses the symmetric Feistel network, which divides the block into two halves before going through the encryption steps.
Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange
Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange is an underlying technology used in current cryptography. It was developed by Ralph Merkle. Each user will generate a public and private key pair and distribute the public key. After obtaining an authentic copy of each other's public keys, users can establish shared secrets offline or through an insecure channel. Here, a symmetric key cipher is used.
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
The Advanced Encryption Standard or Rijndael was adopted by the U.S. in 2001. It was standardized for the encryption of messages by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). AES uses symmetric block encryption with a block size of 128 bits, which involves using only one secret key to cipher and decipher the information. Here, a symmetric block cipher is used.
Elliptic Curvey Cryptography
In the year 2005, Elliptic Curve Cryptography was introduced. It is more robust than the current RSA algorithm. Like the Diffie-Hellman key, it also uses public and private keys. These keys are used to encrypt and decrypt the data.
Later on, in 2014, Text Secure Protocol (Signal Protocol) was created by Open Whisper Systems and is currently used by the Signal and Whatsapp centralized messengers. This is the protocol that is used even in decentralized messaging applications like Session and BChat.
Although centralized and decentralized messengers sometimes use similar encryption protocols, decentralized messengers are more secure than centralized ones. In decentralized messengers, you don't need to submit any personal details to create an account. Let's see a few examples of decentralized messengers.
Status: Status is a decentralized application launched in 2017. It is a mobile-friendly dApp that uses the whisper V5 protocol. Here, the messages sent by the user will be encrypted. The status dApp is developed on the Ethereum blockchain. Users can trade SNT and ETH tokens and make peer-to-peer transactions on the Status dApp.
Secretum: The Secretum dApp is yet to be launched. It is built on the Solana blockchain. They use the ALF protocol. The primary use case of the Secretum dApp is to make crypto trading easy. An OTC desk is built-in within the dApp. Users can trade crypto directly without the need for a centralized exchange or NFT marketplace. Secretum is powered by the SER token.
Session: Session is built on the oxen blockchain. Here they use Text Secure Protocol by Signal or encryption. This protocol is used to initiate, maintain, modify, and terminate real-time communication between users. The Session dApp was launched in 2020. The dApp is end-to-end encrypted, and users can create an account anonymously. The Session ID is an alpha-numeric code, which is the user’s public key. Users can share this public key with others to send them a message in session. It is a secure messaging platform for those who seek privacy. Though the OXEN token isn’t a utility in-app, it is used to secure the oxen servers that provide storage and relay messages.
BChat: BChat is built on the Beldex blockchain. Bchat also uses Text Secure (Signal) Protocol for encryption. The dApp is yet to be launched, however, BChat has a built-in crypto wallet that allows you to trade the platform’s native cryptocurrency BDX right from their chatbox. The masternodes on the Beldex network act as the storage server and route messages from source to destination. BChat does not collect personal data or metadata. Users' IDs (BChat IDs) are used to communicate with others. So, user anonymity is preserved.
As of now, we are using centralized applications and losing our privacy. Privacy is a basic right in one's life. Without our consent, no one has the right to know or use our personal data. It's time to think and move to secure alternatives. Decentralized messengers are not entirely perfect, they’ve got constraints of storage and latency. But they’re evolving and certainly protect your privacy. They do not have a large user base now, but with centralized organizations and ad companies using people’s data for personal gain, the privacy that these messengers offer will surely attract billions of people in times to come.
"If you care about privacy, switch to decentralized messengers."