Pirate Bay founder working on spy-proof text messaging app

The Heml.is application will use end-to-end encryption and will be funded by the community

Peter Sunde, the co-founder of BitTorrent search engine The Pirate Bay, is working on developing a secure mobile messaging app and service that's intended to be safe from government surveillance and be user friendly at the same time.

The app will be called Heml.is -- hemlis means secret in Swedish -- and will be initially developed for Android and iOS. It will provide end-to-end encryption, meaning that messages will be encrypted with keys generated on the end user devices and the service provider won't have access to the plaintext information.

The idea to create Heml.is came following the recent revelations in the media about the extent of the surveillance programs of the U.S. National Security Agency and other government agencies, Sunde said Wednesday via email. "We can't deal with being this monitored!" he said.

There aren't many options for secure mobile messaging, Sunde said. There are secure applications, but not entire systems that could be considered secure, he said. There are questions hanging over the infrastructure those applications are running on and the country in which that infrastructure is located, he said.

"We're unfortunately the only group that is focusing on the whole picture, not just the technology," he said.

Secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden suggest that the NSA is collecting data on user communications from online service providers including Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft and others as part of a surveillance program called Prism.

The infrastructure used for Heml.is will be based in jurisdictions chosen specifically to maximize user protection, Sunde said. Different organizations will own different parts of the infrastructure -- the servers and data -- in order to protect the privacy of users.

The funding for the service will come only from users. The service will not run ads and will be free to use, but people will be able to pay in order to unlock extra features such as sending images in addition to text-based messages through the service.

"We're going to nag people for money," Sunde said. "We need to make sure that people know that we can't do this without their money, and we can't do ads or other funding besides getting money directly from the users, since it would compromise their safety as well."

This idea is based on the premise that if you're not paying for a service you're the actual product as many free service providers cover their costs by exploiting data about their users in some way.

The Heml.is team includes Peter Sunde, Linus Olsson, who is CEO of Flattr, the online donation service he co-founded with Sunde, and Leif Högberg, Flattr's CTO. The team announced the Heml.is project and launched a fund raiser on Tuesday. Almost 40 percent of the US$100,000 goal had been raised in under 24 hours.

The app will be based on the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) for communication and Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) for encryption.

The developers didn't opt for Off-the-Record Messaging (OTR), a cryptographic protocol for instant messaging conversations that provides "perfect forward secrecy" -- the ability to keep past conversations secure even if a private key is later compromised -- because OTR does not work well on mobile platforms, Sunde said.

This is because with 3G mobile services users are not really constantly online, which would be much more workable for OTR, he said.

"We're basing the technology on PGP, not saying it's JUST PGP," Sunde said, adding that more will be revealed in upcoming weeks.

The source code for the app will be released so that the implementation of the cryptographic algorithms can be reviewed by the community and cryptography experts, Sunde said.

"The idea is that the application will be totally open, but that's not really the thing we're focusing on," he said. "We're focusing on the full picture. With legal backing on your rights. Technology can only help with building a solution, but it's much more complex than that."

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