Heml.is (secret): the repercussions of Prism
In the wake of the Prism scandal, which has revealed that all our conversations are being monitored, Peter Sunde, one of the founders of The Pirate Bay and crowd funding sites like Flattr, has launched an easy-to-use cyphered instant messaging service with Leif Högberg and Linus Olsson called Heml.is.
Heml.is, which uses an Icelandic domain name, means secret in Swedish. It is being financed through crowdfunding, and will be a freemium model (basic services for free, along with a pay-to-use model for advanced capacities). The aim is to protect the neutrality of its clients, and will be free of advertising or any kind of monitoring. The application focuses on usability and good design, and is an attempt to overcome the usual association between security and complexity for users: the idea is to be able to manage the service with ease (“Developing the most secure, fun, and sexy messenger IN THE UNIVERSE!” says Sunde in his blog), but with the guarantee that messages are cyphered end to end, meaning that not even the application’s managers can access content.
In many ways, the Prism scandal has highlighted the need to build tools that our watchers cannot access: this is not about hiding anything, but defending our fundamental right to privacy, and to free from constant and abusive monitoring. Spotbros has already developed similar end-to-end cyphering applications, but heml.is and similar systems are going to be the “new sign of the times”, as Julian Assange announced in Cypherpunks (which I had the honor to write the introduction to in the Spanish edition) while we witness the growth of “empires” dedicated to mass spying on individuals and institutions around the world. Cyphering is the only weapon able to protect our freedoms both at the individual and collective levels. Developments such as Kim Dotcom’s Mega are based on cyphering and are increasingly redefining the needs of users. To believe that “I don’t care if they are watching me because I haven’t done anything wrong” is absurd: you don’t get to decide if you are doing something wrong; others will make that call, and they are decidedly paranoid. Every time you use WhatsApp or any other non-cyphered tool to send messages to your friends and family you are exposing yourself to the risk not just that your communication will be monitored, but that somebody you have never met might decide that these conversations are hiding things that are not there. This isn’t about what you say, but about what others believe you might be saying.
In the end, the excesses and patent stupidity of the “watchers” will distort the world into an intrinsically less secure place, a tangled web of cyphered communications that will allow the real wrongdoers to operate with peace of mind. In 2008, another of the creators of the The Pirate Bay, Fredrik Neij, had an idea that pointed the way to a completely cyphered web via a protocol that was visible to the user, and that now, in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations, has been shown to be vindicated. The future of the web is complete cyphering, and thanks to the NSA’s efforts to build a dystopian Big Brother system to spy on us all, it looks set to be with us sooner than we thought.