The influx of online messaging giants over the past decade has brought with it a treasure trove of personal data that is often easily accessible to would-be hackers, or others seeking to misuse information for their own ends. The creation and provision of better distributed private messaging platforms would go a long way in properly securing users’ information and the messages they send to one another.
Secure messaging applications such as Signal and WhatsApp, which far surpass the security of their predecessors, have started to dominate online communication landscape. However, these platforms still remain susceptible to hacks and data breaches. As a result of their centralised nature, if an external agent were to access the central servers, they would be capable of seeing who is talking to who and when. The content of these messages would be hidden, but hackers would still be capable of gleaning a significant amount information about the communication taking place. As most messaging applications require phone number verification, accounts are linked to real-world, verifiable identities, only multiplying the value of information held in these centralised servers.
Centralised systems are highly susceptible to a number of hacks. Social engineering and phishing attacks are regularly employed to gain access to user accounts via SIM splitting or email phishing. Furthermore, the data security of these accounts is placed solely in the hands of the service provider, and users are rarely privy to the security measures taken to protect their data, with almost no way to verify the actual integrity of a platform. This lack of transparency often leads end users to assume the best, and put their faith in a small number of service providers, which are difficult to hold accountable.
Leveraging distributed architecture rather than using traditional servers could go a long way in reducing the risk of hacks and the misuse of data. While sending messages over the blockchain would be impractical, a blockchain can be used to regulate distributed messaging services and networks. With a blockchain enforcing the network, it can be decentralised, without a single data-centre or company serving as the “owner” of messages, user data, or transaction histories. This would mean that the chances of a security breach, or of employees siphoning off and selling user data, would be nil. No one person, group of people, or centralised body would have access to data going from user to user.
The potential applications of distributed messaging networks, where users own their data, and privacy and security are in-built by design, are worthy of exploration. From legal proceedings, commercial agreements, government and military communications, to the transmission of sensitive material such as intellectual property, sensitive data is transmitted over the internet constantly. The value of secure communications channels for these purposes is obvious.
The appetite for online privacy and security is growing with each major public data breach. The scandals currently embroiling large tech companies that allow third parties to access user data have set in motion a huge response from every day users, online advocacy groups, industry bodies, and mainstream media. Combined with the increasing demand for private, secure, and encrypted messenger applications, there will soon be a time when surveillance without consent will no longer be accepted. This includes illegal online activity and hacking, as well as large corporates selling and siloing data to third parties on users’ spending habits, interests, and search histories.
The importance of online privacy is hard to overstate. As online messaging platforms have become the primary channels by which we communicate – they serve as the medium for political activism, civic engagement, as well as discussion and dialogue across the globe. The decentralisation of communications networks is not only essential for the peace of mind of end users who want to secure their personal data, it will also serve to bolster freedom of speech. As more and more social interactions move online, it is essential that technologies evolve with them, enabling private places for discourse that are readily accessible to anyone, wherever they are in the world.
As new ways of communicating continue to develop, security measures against hacks, breaches, and misuse of data must develop as well. While encrypted services have come a long way in providing greater security than its predecessors, its centralised servers remain a lucrative treasure chest for third party actors looking to commodify digital footprints. These “secure” technologies are betrayed by the ability of middlemen and anyone with access to their data to monitor user data and messages sent online. As demand for privacy online continues to rise, blockchain technology and decentralised networks will provide enhanced levels of security that far exceed the current standard.
Simon Harman is CEO of Loki, an Australia-based privacy network which will allow users to transact and communicate privately and anonymously over the internet.