Nadim Kobeissi is a master hacker. He’s been summoned for interrogation multiple times as a teenager by cyber-intelligence authorities in Beirut, Lebanon, and he wants to change the way people communicate over the Internet. He’s also 21 years old.
Kobeissi is working with members of his cyber-hacker tribe to build Cryptocat, a service with a simple, counter cultural goal: people should be able to talk on the Internet without being subjected to commercial or government surveillance. And the fact that, today, privacy on the Internet has become almost a mockery, only emphasizes our need for encrypted chat rooms like Cryptocat.
Think about it this way — if you sent a family member a letter and someone at the post office opened it, wouldn’t you be upset? This is very similar to what’s happening today when we use the Internet.
According to Kobeissi, “The whole point of Cryptocat is that you click a link and you’re chatting with someone over an encrypted chat room. That’s it. You’re done. It’s just as easy to use as Facebook chat, Google chat, anything.”
To get started, you choose a chatroom name on the Cryptocat site and then share that name with anyone you want to talk to. You'll also need a secret key that both you and anyone else in the conversation knows; you type this key into a small blue footer bar. If your key matches another user’s, your chat messages will be revealed to one another. If not, they'll just show up as "encrypted." Basically, if you need to have a private, text-based conversation practically anywhere, Cryptocat makes that process very simple.
Up to ten people can speak privately to one another at a time in a Cryptocat chat room, a feature that distinguishes it from other encryption-chat services such as Hush Tunnel and PrivyTalks. To get a feel for the interface, check out the cool 8-bit video below.
In March, in its long-awaited report on consumer privacy, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) called for designers of Internet browsers to stop allowing websites to collect sensitive data about users, providing a host of recommendations for the telecommunications industry to increase user privacy and self-regulation. The FTC wants users to be able to turn off tracking whenever they themselves see fit. Internet browsers aside, the FTC called for more self-regulation and transparency on the part of mobile service providers and “data brokers” as well.
Encrypted chat rooms like Cryptocat seem to offer a viable and easy solution. But the invention of these powerful tools to thwart the commercial and governmental collection of personal data has been criticized as creating hiding places for terrorists and online sexual predators. Mr. Kobeissi said he had been startled by those complaints. “Evil people have been evil forever,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t think they’re going to stop being evil or become more evil because of Cryptocat.”