After nearly a decade of willfully handing over vast amounts of personal information to companies like Facebook and Twitter, some are now having second thoughts. They question the wisdom of letting a few large, centralized entities hold such vast reserves of information.
That was the thought process going through Miguel Freitas' head when he began developing Twister, a reactionary alternative to Twitter that allows users to share information through a decentralized network that would be significantly harder for government agencies to monitor.
Capitalizing on the technology behind Bitcoin—the pseudonymous, decentralized digital currency—Twister allows users to share Twitter style updates without all their information being collectively stored by a company. This means that Twister can't be shut down by a single entity, and creators say third parties won't be able to tell if a user is online, what IP address they are using, or who they follow.
"I like Twitter, I use it to read news and I have no complains or whatsoever," Freitas writes on the Twister website. "Twitter has a strong reputation of not being cooperative with PRISM wiretapping program of NSA, and of fighting to protect user’s private data on courts. I believe Twitter deserves the public praise and recognition for this."
But he follows this praise with grave skepticism about how much longer the company can protect user information in the face of demands from American intelligence agencies. He refers to the NSA's PRISM program, in which many of the largest U.S. tech companies were forced to give up user information under orders from a secretive intelligence court.
The kind of information shared on Twitter has become a powerful tool, particularly in the developing world where it has aided revolutions and humanitarian relief efforts. In Freitas' native Brazil, he said Twitter was the only source or genuine, unfiltered news about mass political protests that broke out over the summer. He told Wired that social media allowed him to "read news that a lot of friends never heard about."
But despite the social network's populism, Freitas says Twitter's achilles heel is its centralized infrastructure. If governments or other organizations are looking for information about Twitter users, they know exactly where to go.
However, by utilizing the BitTorrent protocol and the same encryption scheme as LavaBit, Freitas and his collaborator Lucas Leal say they've built a much more secure social network. Freitas and Leal have already launched test versions of the app for Linux, OS X and Android. They have no plans to build versions for iOS or Windows, but because the network is open-sourced, it would be easy for someone else to do so.
The way the network functions is outlined in detail here. But essentially, Twister works through a Bitcoin-like protocol, which handles user registration and logins. There are a number of machines on the network operating in a manner similar to Bitcoin miners. But whereas Bitcoin miners unlock new pieces of digital currency, miners on the Twister network are used to verify that usernames are not double-registered and that postings are properly attributed to the correct user. In exchange for allowing their machines to be used for verification on the Twister network, users receive the ability to create promoted posts.
However, as Wired points out, the network isn't completely spy-proof. If someone is monitoring your entire Internet traffic, for example, your IP address can still be connected to your Twister account. This is why Freitas also suggests, for those particularly concerned with privacy, that they access the network through Tor anonymity software.
The flood of revelations about U.S. intelligence agency snooping has sparked a heightened awareness of online privacy vulnerability. Since Snowden first went public, Tor has seen a sharp increase in it number of users (even as experts doubt just how secure the service really is). A number of policymakers have pushed for legislative reform as well. There have also been multiple efforts to create other "NSA-proof" technologies—covering everything from email to fonts.
But just as users seek a way to reclaim their privacy online, there is word that the NSA and other agencies continue unabated in their quest for more information, including work on an $80 million quantum computer—a concept machine that could theoretically bypass all existing encryption online.