Cointelegraph reviews three of the most promising alternatives to Skype that guarantee end-to-end encryption and greater privacy for its users.
From security to surveillance
Skype will go down in history as one of the most popular and disruptive fruits of the Internet. It has enabled people from all over the world to build and sustain relationships in a more humane way than the straight forward but faceless and voiceless chat, or the mail formats still used today in email and forums.
This famous voice over IP platform rose to fame thanks to incredibly low cost for international calls, blowing away its Telecom competitors. This was made possible thanks to its fairly decentralized nature, and promised peer to peer communications to the point that one of its original names was “Sky peer-to-peer.”
It was also marketed as having “total security and privacy” according to a 2008 Reuters article. It was believed to be so censorship resistant that the Chinese government had to pressure the company to build in a backdoor version for them before it could be deployed in China - a model later followed by the West.
Skype has always been proprietary, closed-source software. As such, it is through indirect means that the info security community discovered some of its vulnerabilities. Even today it remains a closed network, which keeps out plug-ins that could use its network to communicate end-to-end (e2e) encrypted data.
“It would be difficult for Skype to stop people from integrating OTR, for example” Explains Kristov Atlas, privacy researcher and security expert at Open Bitcoin Privacy Project, referring to the e2e encryption, a protocol recommended by Edward Snowden.
While Skype certainly continues to do a premium job at free and easy voice and video communications, the days of it being protected from government eyes or secure for dissidents are long gone, even with the recent USA 'Freedom' act reform.
Today, Skype is a useful VoIP and group chat software, as well as a massive spy network for the Five Eyes international spy agencies, and can be very intrusive in Microsoft machines. So much so that some believe “Skype is basically malware at this point.”
What are the Alternatives?
So with that in mind let’s look at the cutting edge e2e encrypted, censorship resistant chat and voice over IP software available today that can potentially reduce Skype’s dominance on the market.
The following have been chosen among hundreds of VoIP platforms, for focusing, supporting or claiming to support e2e encryption of voice and chat, and are listed in no particular order.
Tox.im uses distributed hash tables - torrent like technology that makes of a distributed network. It uses public-privacy key cryptography similar to Bitcoin's. This way, communication is encrypted end-to-end and users negotiate the key exchange rather than the software. Very simple. A statement on the Tox.im homepage reads:
“With the rise of government monitoring programs, Tox provides an easy to use application that allows you to connect with friends and family without anyone else listening in. While other big-name services require you to pay for features, Tox is totally free, and comes without advertising.”
Tox is open-source and supports almost every platform including OS X, Windows, Linux and Android.
The client feels very light weight compared to Skype and other alternatives and it supports video, and voice calls, file sharing, as well as group chat. It also has an awesome screen pic feature that I've seen nowhere else and would download as a standalone tool.
However, the whole project is still in alpha and can be buggy. The Android platform is also in the early stages and does not yet support voice or video.
Additionally, Tox does not have a monetization scheme or model. While this certainly has its upside, this can also slow the overall development of the platform.
Nevertheless, Tox is as true to the decentralized e2e encrypted ethos of the post-Snowden internet as any other, possibly leading the charge as far privacy centric VoIP.
Bleep by BitTorrent
Bleep is an e2e encrypted, decentralized proprietary chat and VoIP. It has the most stable android version that I could test and supports every major operating system except Linux.
The client was developed by BitTorrent, creators of the infamous torrenting clients that have made control of information effectively impossible. Hollywood along with other powerful lobbying groups and international government efforts have tried and failed to take down torrent networks.
The client is incredibly easy to use and supports “whispers,” which are chat and file sharing messages that disappear and are allegedly deleted from all receiving devices soon after.
“Bleep’s logo represents a folded note – a message passed directly, hand-to-hand. In our implementation, we keep messages and the encryption keys for images stored on your local device, not the cloud,” explained Farid Fadaie, head of the BitTorrent Bleep project. “For messages and metadata, there is no server for hackers to target and because you hold the keys, images can’t be leaked to haunt you later.”
Silent Circle is an IT company with legendary team members such as Phil Zimmerman, the inventor of PGP and ZRTP, which are two authentication, encryption and privacy protocols widely used today. PGP alone has been around for over 20 years and remains unbroken.
Among the team is also Jon Callas, creator of Apple’s Full Disk Encryption, and Mike Janke, Security expert and a former Navy Seal. They are the creators of Blackphone, the first and perhaps only security and privacy centric mobile development company that doesn’t aim to secretly turn you into their product by mining your data. Instead Silent Circle claims to do everything they can to bring privacy back for the Internet age.
Silent Circle also has various software applications including two mobile apps: Silent Text and Silent Phone for e2e encrypted chat and VoIP, respectively.
As a mobile company of course, they are at a higher risk of state sponsored attacks or legal requests for information. The team is aware of this and is very clear about what they can and cannot do for both customers and law enforcement. Their compliance and transparency disclosure discusses how little information they do retain.
Where's the catch? Well, it’s not free. The iOS and Android apps cost US$10 to use. They also have mobile data plans ranging from US$12 to US$40 dollars a month for up to a thousand “Silent World Minutes” and free e2e VoIP for Silent Circle members.
While this will probably be a good deal to those concerned with privacy, it may be difficult to get users to pay US$10 dollars to move to a new VoIP plan despite having cheaper alternatives.
Still, Silent Circle is without a doubt one of the cutting edge privacy-oriented communications platforms in the industry.
There are plenty of very intelligent people working to bring privacy to end users. However, from my experience testing the software that I could get my hands on still in its infancy and there is plenty of room to grow as far as ease of use and stability are concerned.
Stay tuned for the second part of the Skype alternatives e2e encrypted VoIP series, in which other privacy tools used by the likes of Edward Snowden will be explored in detail.