Blockchain-based decentralized messenger: a privacy pipedream?

As people around the world have become increasingly aware of their privacy rights and how they are constantly being violated by various prominent social media platforms, the need for tangible, decentralized alternatives has continued to grow rapidly.

For perspective, in 2019, Facebook was ordered to pay a $ 5 billion fine by the US Federal Trade Commission for misappropriating private data of up to 87 million of its users. Just a year later, the social media giant had to spend another $ 550 million to settle a privacy lawsuit that suggested the company had illegally collected customer data (including its biometric and personal details) without its explicit consent.

Such violations have helped alleviate the need for transparency-driven social media services, particularly decentralized messaging, which provide its users with a high level of data security. In this regard, the new quantum-resistant, privacy-centric messaging app XX Messenger – developed by cryptographer David Chaum – recently made its way into the market. The app has a worldwide decentralized network of 350 nodes, with each operator earning the platform’s native XX Coin as an incentive for their efforts.

A quantum-resistant messenger would be able to resist most currently known methods of decryption, theoretically guarding against the possibility of a quantum computer being used to crack into a user’s communications.

The incentive for blockchain-based messengers

Guy Goldenberg, CEO of MultiNFT – a metaverse-based social media network – told Cointelegraph that the need for decentralized messaging services is driven by two key accelerating factors: users looking for censorship-resistant applications, and a lack of trust in centralized providers as it comes to privacy and data protection. He said:

“Recently, users have been increasingly concerned about their freedom of expression and the ownership of their data rights, and with the help of decentralized chat apps, the solution seems to be just around the corner – platforms that are proprietary of the users and not by a small group of administrators, where no single party can control opinions or censor participants. “

Scott Cunningham, an independent blockchain analyst and social media influencer, told Cointelegraph that the core premise of decentralized messaging platforms is that they provide users with end-to-end encrypted solutions that guarantee consumer anonymity as well as a high degree of privacy. To bolster his case, he shared a recent unpleasant experience with Facebook’s Messenger:

“I sent a letter to myself [meant to be read later by me] only to find that Facebook is checking messages to me and deleting them due to a community change. Once experienced that everything they say is followed and evaluated in real time, they will feel more compelled to move.

The disadvantages are quite real

While a decentralized messenger could theoretically maintain the privacy of the masses, blockchain technology could in itself be a barrier to adoption.

Ingo Rübe, founder of blockchain-based identity network Kilt Protocol, noted that decentralized messaging requires real-time relay and storage capabilities, as it is quite unrealistic for recipients to be online when someone sends them a text. “One possible solution would be to use random single blockchain nodes as relays, but it can be unreliable,” he added.

Goldenberg said the use of blockchain tech poses further problems when it comes to network upgrades. “Updates to blockchain systems are rarely backwards compatible and can sometimes present issues that a product may not be able to survive,” Goldenberg added.

Yung Beef, content lead and community manager at Subsocial – a Polkadot-based platform for launching decentralized social networks – told Cointelegraph that one of the biggest barriers is transaction costs, adding:

“We’ve been struggling enough with creating a social networking platform that has transaction costs, and with how many people are reporting to each other, I’m not sure it would ever really be possible.”

While he admitted that Subsocial is actively looking for ways to implement a private messaging module, the challenges are quite drastic, making the vision a bit of a pipedream. “We are working on a way to close SUB [the platform’s native crypto token] to get a certain number of free transactions a day, but that does not solve the problem of some people who send thousands of messages a day, ”he added.

A similar sentiment was echoed by Rübe, who told Cointelegraph that a decentralized messaging service would be faced with multiple challenges from the start, starting with the fact that it would be costly to place messages on a blockchain. Even if they came their way to a network, they would not be very secure, as it would be fairly easy for anyone with access to the system to read them.

Alexander Klus, founder of Creaton – a decentralized content sharing platform – told Cointelegraph that a fully functional, viable blockchain messenger is a very difficult problem to solve, and points out that existing platforms such as Etherscan’s messaging service are freely centralized . Even Status, the official Ethereum messenger, includes some centralization to better scale, he said, adding:

“Choosing a platform like Signal as a messaging platform would be best because it has very good encryption. Also permanence in terms of messaging is not a big issue or something that most users do not want to agree with anyway.”

Another big problem is adoption, because most decentralized products that currently exist in this realm simply cannot compete with the giants they face, such as Telegram, WhatsApp and WeChat. Goldenberg said:

“Users have a common way of doing things, and new platforms need a viral accelerator to adopt because they need massive migration, which is almost impossible. You see, for a chat application to be useful, you have to all (or most) of your contacts need to use it, and that costs time, marketing and willingness.

Is there a middle ground to be found?

While popular privacy-oriented apps, including Signal and Telegram, claim to approach users’ privacy with great care, using end-to-end encryption or client-server encryption, the former is only as secure as its encryption. In this regard, Chaum pointed out that messages from these platforms could theoretically still be compromised and decoded by a powerful computer if they were not permanently deleted.

Therefore, going forward, it will be interesting to see if developers are able to come up with blockchain-driven messaging services that offer the same degree of functional and operational flexibility as their centralized counterparts, while addressing the issue of high transaction costs in a long term and practical way.

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