An anonymous, encrypted, decentralized communication service that leaves no metadata and easy to use. We tried it
If there is a lesson that we have learned in recent years – in which the subject of communication surveillance, by the most diverse subjects, suddenly exploded – that metadata is essential. Know who communicates with whom and when it can be very sensitive information, especially under dictatorships and repressive regimes. The contents of communications, what is said or written, can now be encrypted in many ways, but eliminating their metadata, the traces they leave on the servers, and therefore the connections between people, much more difficult.
Several projects for are trying, and one of these is gaining momentum lately. It's about Ricochet, an instant messaging program that combines encryption, anonymity and decentralization. And that solves the problem of the trail of metadata. The system – developed by John Brooks, an American programmer in his early twenties, supported by Invisible.im, a coalition of internationally renowned activists and cybersecurity experts – had been under track for some time, but debuted during Chaos Computer Congress, the well-known hacker and hacktivist gathering held in late December in Germany, in fact obtaining a first public recognition.
TOR LABS !! A new showcase for new projects like Ricochet (https://t.co/6c466N0rvF) a messaging program with no central server to hack # 32C3
torproject (@torproject) December 29, 2015
And in fact – as Wired has also been able to test – it now seems ready to leave the circle of experts. Also because among its characteristics there is also extreme ease of use. Just download the program, start it, exchange your ID (created automatically by the software) with the people you want to chat with and done.
But how it works and what makes it different from other programs? To understand this, one fact must be kept in mind: every digital communication – email, messages, phone calls – leaves a series of data on the sender and recipient, generally including the date of the communication, the IP address and so on. And this also applies to encrypted communications. In Ricochet this information does not exist because there is no centralized server that acts as an intermediary of communication. Furthermore, even if a communication system deletes users' metadata, it is still vulnerable to attacks on its central server, whose traffic could be spied on and analyzed for correlations.
Instead Ricochet does not communicate with a central server. Every one of his clients connects to the Tor network and operates as a hidden service of the same. What does it mean? The Tor network allows you to browse anonymously and to create sites or services – for example an instant messaging server – keeping your location hidden. The latter are called hidden services. And therefore each Ricochet user, through the software, creates his own hidden service. The various hidden users / services then communicate with each other anonymously and encrypted using the Tor network, of course, through the intermediate meeting places (in jargon, rendezvous points). It makes it very difficult for anyone to guess someone's identity from an address or ID.
Since every user has a hidden service, Ricochet lets you meet with your contacts instead of using an intermediary, for example an XMPP server ",as for Jabber, John Brooks explains to Wired.it. Removing that car in the middle means that there is nothing in Ricochet's architecture that can be monitored or compromise to attack users, unless they attack the security of the entire Tor network. Also, because the hidden services communicate with each other without ever leaving the Tor network, without ever leaving it, traffic not subject to monitoring or interception in the way that a Tor exit node can be (as occurs in most XMPP servers). In addition, the traffic always encrypted end-to-end, or encrypted directly from your client to that of the person you are talking to.
When you download the client to your PC, it generates it a 16-character public key which corresponds to the user's identity (ID). That is also his Ricochet address. That of John Brooks for example the following: ricochet: rs7ce36jsj24ogfw. They cannot be memorized, but the IDs of friends can be saved in the address book together with their name. The system does not require the installation of additional software (much less Tor) and all the complicated part of creating the hidden servicecommunication via Tor with others takes place without the user having to do anything, other than entering the ID of a friend and starting a chat.
The model that inspired Ricochet TorChat, a similar decentralized messaging system that is no longer maintained, and now little used. Other systems that aim to eliminate metadata from communications are Pond and Vuvuzela. But Ricochet also strikes for usability. And also for the authoritativeness of those who promote it. The Invisible.im team gathers, among others, a well-known Australian journalist on privacy issues, Patrick Gray; IT security expert (and exploit salesman) The Grugq; as well as the developer of the well-known Metasploit penetration testing software, HD Moore. And financed by some NGOs.
Brooks explains that he wants to dedicate 2016 to Ricochet. The next feature we will add will be the 'drag and drop' based file transfer: it couldn't be easier, He adds. We will still work a lot on dellusability and the user interface; and then on making it more secure from potential attacks. Because as the Ricochet website says: Unsecure security as long as it's not automatic and easy to use.