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Matrix, Synapse, and Element – Secure, Decentralized communication

Privacy and censorship are essential items in the minds of spiritual people. We like to be empowered and not give away our freedom to this company or the other. 

We have found alternative email providers that promise to take care of our data, but what can we do about the instant chat applications? 

The privacy-oriented alternatives to Messenger and WhatsApp that most people know about are Signal and Telegram. Those apps are now experiencing a surge of new users. 

But there is still an inherent problem with both Signal and Telegram. We need to rely on their promise that they will not sell out to the highest bidder and that conversations are kept private. On top of that, since each one has a central server, they are super easy to ban and block. Their terms of use may prohibit users from talking about certain topics deemed “fake news” or “misinformation.”

[Matrix] – The Open Standard 

One solution is to use an open standard called [Matrix] for our instant communication. 

Being an open standard is very important. It means anyone can implement it, but more importantly, anyone can inspect it to make sure it keeps its promise of decentralization and data privacy. 

The best way to understand how the [Matrix] standard works is to think of how we use emails. We each have our own email providers that may be different, and we each have our email applications that can also be different. And yet, we can all email each other with no problem. Isn’t that beautiful? 

What if we can bring the same ideas to instant chat? The idea that you can use different servers and various apps and still talk to one another. [Matrix] does that. 

Because it is open and designed to be collaborative, anyone can start their own servers that will connect to each other, and anyone with the skills can create a chat application or improve the existing ones. This openness encourages innovation, collaboration, and transparency. 

Since you can start your own chat server, you don’t need to send your communication data to a company like Facebook or even Signal. It can all stay on your server where you decide what happens to it. 

So why isn’t everyone on Matrix yet?

In one word: convenience!

A centralized server, a unique application, and a big company financing the system are incredibly convenient for the user. Why? Because everything is polished and streamlined to cause as little friction as possible because the company needs your attention and your data. So it is convenient, but you pay with your privacy. 

A decentralized architecture is much more challenging to create, maintain, and understand. It is not easy to grasp the idea that you can reach your friends on a different server and in a separate app. It is also more difficult to create an account because of all these micro-decisions that you have to make: what server will I use, what application is best for me, what kind of data am I willing to share on this server, whom can I trust in this eco-system? Oh, it’s is so much easier to “just use WhatsApp!”

And when you bring in encryption, things get even more complicated! 

What are public and private keys? Why should I care? Why do I need a passphrase? How will I remember all this stuff? What do I do if I get locked out? 

To understand this challenge, let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture. 

Here is what Facebook promises: “just give us your fingerprints, and use our app and we will take care of your security for you. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Everything will work at the touch of your finger. Let us be your BIG BROTHER.” 

Here is what [Matrix] promises: “we want to guarantee your privacy, and therefore we don’t want to know anything about you! So all the passwords, the keys, the personal identifiable data, it is yours to care about and store as securely as you know-how!”

Which one would you choose? Do you know how to store the password securely? Are you tech-aware enough to be confident in your decision? 

These are hard questions that you need to grapple with if you value your privacy and your ability to connect with your friends without a middle man.

The Open Standard – A blessing and a curse

Remember the talk about “email” from before? Do you know what made email so great? 

It was TRUST! 

When email was invented, the people that would use it would know each other and trust each other. This inherent trust allowed them to create something so open, so interoperable that it seems naive by today’s standards! 

The assumption was that every email user is a good person, and they will not abuse the system because abuse will make things worse for everyone.

Of course, we all know what happened soon after: spam, identity theft, and hacking. 

It really breaks my heart that an open standard based on trust is a honey pot for bad actors willing to abuse the system. It takes everything that makes the system beautiful and efficient and turns it against itself. Instead of focusing on innovation, you need to focus on security and locking things away.

The blessing of “anyone is welcome to use it” turns into a “someone will likely abuse it” curse.

We now live in an era where trust is at an all-time low. Especially on the Internet! All the open systems that we create today assume the exact opposite from the age of email: nobody can be trusted anymore

As sad as this may be, it is the reality we need to work with right now. And it is why tools focused on privacy are anything but easy, and flowing, and convenient. They can never achieve that goal because you will need to carry around, securely, your private key chains, your passwords, your passphrases. 

There are two takeaways here:

1) don’t even hope that a truly private app will ever be as easy to use as Telegram or Signal. That is not possible. It is you who needs to be responsible for your own data, not big-brother. 

2) in an open system, there will be bad people. What this means is that not all [Matrix] servers are good ones. Not all users on the [Matrix] servers are good ones. And not all chat apps that work over the [Matrix] network will keep your data private and secure. [Matrix] empowers you by not “taking care of you.”

Is your head spinning yet?

I understand. I am a tech person, and it took me days to digest this information and try to present it in a way that most people would understand and use. It is normal if this feels “hard”. Press on! 🙂 

My idea of helping is to shoulder some of the responsibility with you. If you trust me enough, you can use my recommendations below to get into the [Matrix] network easier. 

As an app I recommend Element

For a server, it is best if you can start your own, but if that’s not your thing, you can request an account on mine

I would avoid creating an account on Matrix.org. As they also point out, it would make them a sort of “central point,” which is counter to their philosophy. (If you need a hand setting up your own server, let me know.)

I will end by giving thanks to my friend Tim for making me aware of this information and to all the people behind Matrix and Element that put a ton of effort into imagining and bringing this forward. 

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