Move over Skype, Facetime, Hangouts. Here comes Spreedbox, a fully open source, secure videoconferencing solution

Spreedbox can offer private and secure video chat using Linux and open source technologies. All it needs is your support.

spreedbox
Credit: Spreedbox/Kickstarter

Following the trend of privacy-respecting products and projects coming out of Europe (e.g., ownCloud, Kolab, and Plasma Mobile), German firm struktur AG has started a Kickstarter project called Spreedbox, which aims to offer a secure audio video conferencing service. According to the project page, “The Spreedbox is a unique device for secure audio/video conferencing, text and video messaging and file sharing. The Spreedbox is your own conferencing, meeting and file exchange service on the Internet and puts the control and security of your data into your own hands.”

The company is trying to raise over $25,000 for the project. (At the time this story was written, they had raised $9,200 with 25 more days to go.)

To better understand the goal of the project I talked to Niels Mache, CEO of struktur AG / Spreed.

Swapnil Bhartiya: What do you mean by secure audio/video conferencing? What problem does Spreedbox solve that solutions like Hangouts, Skype or Facetime can’t solve?

Niels Mache: With the Spreedbox we focus on 'private' communication and the user's privacy. Information is the new Gold. With the success of the Internet in the past decade more and more global corporations have changed their product and service strategy to collect in-depth information about Internet users worldwide. These corporations reach their goal by providing just three things: 'free' services (most popular), providing operating software for mobile devices or selling Internet connected devices (mostly mobile devices). The Spreedbox allows you to get back your data by providing your own service for communication and data exchange. This is also where ownCloud comes in. Why use the offered cloud service for syncing and archiving personal data if you can easily do it yourself? Our vision is: Your Data - Your Control. Private, secure, and without fear not to get back your data.

Swapnil: What kind of customers need such secure conferencing services?

Niels: All customers who want or need to have confidential communication: which means almost everyone. It includes industries like engineering, universities, hospitals, financial consulting, outsourcing. By occupation: journalists, lawyers, radiologists, scientists.

Can there ever be secure conferencing when services are used? If someone steals your provider's data collection, will you be informed? Data leaks are not rare and I could imagine that customers will not even be informed about data breaches. For instance I once installed the LinkedIn mobile app and denied the app access to the address book. Days later when I logged into LinkedIn I was asked if I know this person, that person, another person et cetera. None of the persons LinkedIn asked me for have ever existed. I created them for a specific purpose. Some years later facebook finds the non-existing persons quite interesting too. For similar reasons I never give meaningful answers in password reset forms when being asked 'What was your first teacher', 'Your maiden name' or 'Your favorite dish'.

With the Spreedbox your communication is private and your data is secure. First, its software is open source and we have some excellence in security. You can review, compile and make the software yourself. Secret backdoors have no chance. Second, you are in control of the encryption because you hold the keys. Third, and most important the Spreedbox does not aggregate information like cloud services do with thousands and millions of users. Cloudless means no data aggregation and even in the case of a failure of the software security this would imply enormous costs to get individual access to thousands of (Spreedbox) locations where personal data is distributed.

Swapnil: Can you explain what Spreedbox actually is? Is is some kind of open hardware that runs some kind of operating system and then services? Can you give more details about it?

Niels: The purpose of the Spreedbox is to provide video and audio chat conferencing service and file exchange for private and small business use. Securely and without the need to pay for a service. The Spreedbox is your own Skype, GotoMeeting, WebEx, etc.

For the Spreedbox we have used only open technologies. The box runs secure Linux Snappy Ubuntu operating system and the Spreed server software is open source too. The CPU board is the open and powerful Odroid-C1+ compute module plus our custom PCB with LED control and a Hardware Random Number Generator (HWRNG) for secure off-the-silicon key generation. The Amlogic 4-core ARM CPU documentation is open and comprehensive. Last not least, the Spreedbox is a design object too. Its Bauhaus design is virtually timeless and of high-value.

Swapnil: Does that mean every party who wants to get connected to me needs to have a Spreedbox? So if I want to talk to someone we both need Spreedbox?

Niels: No, this is not the case. Your Spreedbox provides the video chat/file sharing service. You and your friends, clients use the device you have: a browser, the desktop app or mobile apps. The apps connect to your box. You can video/audio chat with your friends all day if you like. It needs just one Spreedbox. That's it.

Swapnil: The Kickstarter page also mention file storage and syncing. There are many open source file storage and syncing services such as ownCloud, Seafile, etc. Are you working on your own solution or will use some existing solutions?

Niels: When you are in a video chat the way you want to share a file – we call it real-time sharing - differs from sharing a photo album. We want to have the best of both worlds: real-time everything and file collections with a fine and easy control of access rights and the awesome personal cloud spanning feature. This is why ownCloud is the most versatile, the most durable and the most advanced file sync, archive and sharing solution on the market. We simply want the best of everything. This is why the Spreedbox comes with ownCloud.

Swapnil: You are trying to raise only $25,000 - where will this money be used? Isn’t it too low for an ambitious project like this one? What’s the motive behind this?

Niels: Over the past 2 years we have developed the Spreedbox and its software. The design is nearly ready to go. With the Kickstarter campaign we are addressing innovators, privacy-aware people and the design-centric. It is an awesome offering for a very competitive price. The Spreedbox retail price will differ from the unit price of our Kickstarter campaign. The Spreedbox casing is manufactured piece-by-piece hand-by-hand and this cannot be cheap. With this manufacture process we have constant costs nearly independent from the number of units being sold. A large number of units is not a constraint to give it a go. The biggest investment is already made: the development of its software.

Swapnil: You quoted Steve Jobs on the Kickstarter page. Do you believe Jobs has a very positive image within open source crowd and will get more people interested in the project?

Niels: The quote refers to Apple's design only. To quote Steve Jobs was a very controversial discussion. In the meantime we have replaced the quote with a quotation of Hartmut Esslinger, who gave Apple products its identity until today.

Swapnil: If the funding succeeds, what will be the next step for you?

Niels: We are already in the planning process for production and packaging. The next steps are the programming of an easy setup procedure and the manufacturing of the custom PCB. And if we reach the ownCloud stretch goal, the super nice ready-to go ownCloud in the box.

In closing

The project looks extremely important and seems to be yet another arch in the circle to offer citizens of the world much-needed privacy solutions. It fits very well alongside projects like ownCloud, Kolab etc. Looking at the way Hangouts, Skpye or even Facetime may be an easy target for prying eyes, Spreedbox is certainly the solution worth supporting.

You can go ahead and pledge for the project on Kickstarter today.

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