The world's most successful data transfer protocol could underlie the next generation chat client: Bleep will provide totally secure, totally peer-to-peer chatting from BitTorrent.
BitTorrent, creator of the protocol that now handles more than a third of all internet traffic, has a new product called Bleep on the horizon. It aims to bring the distributed, anonymous technology that made BitTorrent so successful to the oldest action in the history of the internet: chat. Using the same BitTorrent connection logic that has allowed you to pirate TV shows and movies for over a decade, Bleep will facilitate direct, encrypted connections directly between peers, meaning that no outside observer ever gets its hands on your words. To everyone buy the intended recipient, your words are effectively “bleeped.” This could be big news for whistleblowers who are trying to keep their identity secret, for businesses that want to ensure the confidentiality of their communications, or just for normal people who want to escape the ever-watchful eye of the NSA.
Encrypted chat programs like Bleep, or even long-standing encrypted email schemes, are generally pretty difficult to use. If you wanted to send me a totally secure email, you’d need to visit by Twitter account for a PGP key (generously hosted at an external MIT key-server), use that to add me as an encrypted messaging buddy, then use specialized email software to send/receive messages. Most of the difficulty in sending secure messages comes from the fact that those emails must pass (unreadable) through a number of third parties — but BitTorrent’s whole addition to the tech sphere was its circumvention of unnecessary servers to allow direct peer-to-peer (p2p) communication.
As soon as you bring third parties into the system (i.e. remote servers), you bring trust into the equation, and exponentially increase the ways your communications could be attacked. If your conversations are all flowing through some Google, Microsoft, or Apple server somewhere, then it doesn’t really matter how well you protect things on your end; if the NSA/Snowden leaks have taught us anything, it’s that third parties can readily reveal your communications. Even encrypted chat services like ChatCrypt don’t fully get around this problem — though to be fair, they do a pretty good job.
With Bleep, the creators use something called a Distributed Hash Table (DHT) to basically associate public encryption keys (you’ll still need those) with IP addresses. Using this information (encryption+online location) the BitTorrent protocol can establish a direct link between two users with no intermediaries. BitTorrent says there will be absolutely no record of the IP-lookup (this would be a piece of metadata), as each user finds the other through the network’s many distributed nodes rather than a central lookup server. This system might work via a one-time lookup per user, or require a DHT-check to establish a connection at the beginning of every conversation; the documentation is still quite vague.
BitTorrent, as an idea, is sort of the apex predator of modern data-giants like Google. Encryption and p2p tech has not hurt Google much because, frankly, it’s always been too clunky to catch on for any large proportion of users’ time. On the other hand, Bleep will offer features like importing your Google contacts list for easy setup; people will still need to generate an encryption key-pair, but as it becomes more practically feasible to pass around more and more types of data without any assistance, it will ruffle more and more feathers. Don’t be surprised if those pro-tech super-PACs everyone’s so excited about end up opposing anti-cloud efforts like this one, especially when BitTorrent takes its thinking to the logical conclusion and releases a competitor to the onion routing protocol – i.e. Tor – which would allow a fully p2p web browser.
You can sign up for an early-access list for Bleep, but there’s no telling how long you might wait, and you’ll need to convince some friends to be as up in arms about privacy as you are. Though it’s still in a closed alpha phase, Bleep is built on the framework of the old BitTorrent Chat experiment, so it has already had extensive testing in its basic functionality. For those who want it, Bleep could be a near-perfect solution — but relying on supposedly impregnable software has burned many people in the past. We’ll see how well Bleep can measure up to the unforgiving storm of cyber-attacks that come to bear on virtually every “secure” software ever made.