BitTorrent took the next step towards turning its secure messaging client Bleep into a real product: The company opened up the alpha test of Bleep on Wednesday, and released it as an app for OS X and Android. BitTorrent also updated the existing Windows client with a bunch of new features, getting closer to a point where Bleep could one day replace traditional instant messaging services and possibly even phone calls.
Bleep is [company]BitTorrent[/company]’s attempt to offer a secure messaging service that not only offers end-to-end encryption, but also makes it a lot harder to find out which users are communicating with each other. It’s in part a response to the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s snooping, which involved large-scale metadata analysis to track the phone calls of millions of Americans and many more around the world.
Here is how Bleep wants to avoid this kind of surveillance: BitTorrent doesn’t actually require users to sign up for Bleep. Instead, you can just launch a Bleep app and generate a private and public key combination, used to encrypt all of your communication. Users can then exchange their public keys directly, without BitTorrent ever having any record of them using the service.
However, while this may be great if you are very security-conscious, or just plain paranoid, it doesn’t make for a great user experience. The advantages of a centrally managed instant messaging service, or even the traditional phone system, is that it provides some way to look up new users. To facilitate this, Bleep offers users an option to register with either their phone number or an email address, which can then be used by others for discovery.
But BitTorrent’s servers only facilitate this first contact. Finding and connecting to known contacts on the network is done through a distributed hash table, DHT for short, which is the same technology that is also being used by BitTorrent’s file sharing client to find other users who are sharing the same file. In fact, the company has been tweaking the DHT it uses for its BitTorrent and uTorrent clients to eventually also connect to Bleep. Here’s BitTorrent’s Senior Director of Product Development Farid Fadaie explaining the rationale behind this move:
It is important to mention that the number of nodes that are participating in the DHT directly affects users’ privacy. As you can imagine, if only few nodes are participating in the network, it’s easy to inject more nodes into that network and collect some information that might lead to the leakage of metadata. Bleep will eventually use the same DHT network as uTorrent, which has millions of active nodes already. In other words, using an already established network allows us to offer Bleep as a private messaging app to even our first few users, eliminating that chicken-and-egg problem.
Bleep is still very much an alpha product, and some of the shortcomings include the fact that you won’t be able to send anyone a message if they’re not online at the same time. Messages are also not persistent across devices, and there seems to be some issue with regards to data usage, which is why BitTorrent suggests to only use the Bleep Android app on Wi-Fi for the time being.
Still, the addition of mobile and OS X apps shows that BiTorrent has big plans for Bleep, and the open alpha test should help to get the service ready for what’s next.