Encrypted Social Network Vies for Disgruntled Whatsapp, Facebook Users

Easy-to-use encryption is the aim of Syme, a service built by three students in Montreal

With the look of Google Plus and Facebook-like elements, a new social network named "Syme" feels as cozy as a well-worn shoe.

But beneath the familiar veneer, it's quite different. Syme encrypts all content, such as status updates, photos and files, so that only people invited to a group can view it. Syme, which hosts the content on its Canada-based servers, says it can't read it.

"The overarching goal of Syme is to make encryption accessible and easy to use for people who aren't geeks or aren't hackers or who aren't cryptography experts," said co-founder Jonathan Hershon.

Hershon is part of a bright trio who have self-funded Syme's development while working out of their homes and studying at McGill University in Montreal. Hershon is studying psychology, Louis-Antoine Mullie is a medical student with a strong technology background, and Christophe Marois, who works on the user interface, studies music.

"We have very low operating costs," Hershon said.

It may be the just the right time for Syme, which is now open to all after an invite-only beta trial. The technology industry, shaken by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden's revelations of large-scale surveillance efforts by the U.S. and U.K., is looking for better ways to shield user data from prying eyes.

Law enforcement agencies around the world are also increasingly filing requests for data to companies such as Facebook and Twitter, who are compelled by law to turn over data, sometimes without informing users.

Appropriate for a privacy-centered service, "Syme" is named after a character in "1984," George Orwell's chilling novel describing total state control. In the book, Syme was "vaporized" for being a free-thinking individual.

Syme's user interface is refreshingly free of clutter. A bell icon, which shows the number of unread notifications, and a cog icon, to adjust settings, are both very similar to Google Plus. It has a "Like" button, just like Facebook.

"We wanted to make something that people could easily recognize and feel at home with," Hershon said.

Although Syme has elements of Facebook and Google Plus, it is more of a group messaging tool along the lines of WhatsApp: A person creates a group and invites others, who receive the necessary decryption keys to see posted content.

A JavaScript-based browser extension encrypts content with a person's Web browser before it leaves the computer. Syme is using the Stanford JavaScript Crypto Library in its browser extensions, a vetted open-source cryptography component.

So far, Syme has built an extension for Google Chrome with ones for the Firefox and Safari browsers in the works, as well as mobile applications for iOS and Android, Hershon said.

Content remains scrambled as it traverses the Internet and is unreadable even to Syme, which stores the data on its servers. Co-founder Mullie authored a white paper describing Syme's use of a two-step, hybrid encryption system that is fast, secure and efficient.

Rather than foiling government-sponsored hackers, Syme is aimed more at providing greater privacy. For example, data destined for Syme could be intercepted if a person's computer was hacked.

While it can't read the content, Syme does store metadata, or information describing aspects of communications, which can be useful to interested parties.

People register Syme accounts using an email address, and Syme can see which users have communicated with each other. It also knows when posts were written, when someone connected to Syme and the size of transferred files or photos. Hershon cautions that Syme is undergoing peer review and should not relied on for the transmission of super-sensitive messages.

The profile of a potential Syme user is someone who wants more secure, but not bulletproof, communication without, say, Facebook's sprawl and exposure.

"People are actively looking for alternatives" to securely share information, Hershon said. "That's the need that we're trying to fill."

Marc Beaupre-Pham, a 25-year-old software developer in Montreal, said his friends are increasingly using lean mobile applications for communicating within small groups.

"We've all kind of fallen off of Facebook and almost exclusively use WhatsApp now," he said.

But Beaupre-Pham said he doesn't have much confidence in WhatsApp's security. In early October, a security researcher found a flaw in WhatsApp's cryptography implementation that could have allowed attackers to decrypt intercepted messages.

Syme is "like a perfect replacement," said Beaupre-Pham, who tested the service during the beta period with his wife.

It's unlikely Syme can displace Facebook or Google Plus since the power of those networks is the ability to virtually contact anyone on them, said Thomas Karpiniec, an electrical engineer programmer for a technology consultancy based in Hobart, Tasmania, who has blogged about Syme's architecture.

"I don't think it's able to really compete with traditional social networks, but I think privacy-minded groups of people who have fairly clearly defined boundaries might be able to use it to chat with each other easily," Karpiniec said in a phone interview.

It may also be attractive to smaller businesses without resources to deploy their own private social networking infrastructure or those that do not want to put their data in Google Apps or Microsoft's Office 365 or Outlook.com, Karpiniec said.

Hershon said Syme will be free for now, although it is considering creating a premium paid-for service targeted at industries such as health care, law and publishing.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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