Freedombone Blog

Freedom in the Cloud

The Ecosystem is Moving Away from Monoliths

At the recent 36C3 Moxie Marlinspike - the developer of the Free Software chat app Signal - gave a talk about the problems involved with with decentralization. It was recorded by accident and then later taken down from CCC's media site, but essentially it was an elaboration upon a blog post which he wrote in 2016.

Even in 2016 it was a contested opinion that decentralized or federated systems could not compete with monolithic ones, but in the intervening years the case for decentralization has become stronger. So while the ecosystem has moved, Moxie's opinions have remained stuck in 2016. "Move fast and break things" is no longer considered a desirable mission statement, even within silicon valley.

In 2020 running a global chat system from a monolithic server on AWS, and in a manner which requires you to give out your mobile phone number, doesn't seem like all that great of an idea from a security and general ethics point of view. For example, how do we know that "ghost members" aren't being added to chat groups, as GCHQ suggested? Who is auditing Moxie's server and who else at Amazon has physical access to it? Use of phone numbers also opens up a variety of security problems. And that's even before wading into the quagmire that is the Electron-based desktop client.

Undoubtedly there are problems remaining to be solved in the decentralized chat space. If you've ever tried using OMEMO for group chat on Conversations then you'll know what I mean. It soon turns into a comedy of errors, because every participant needs to have the public key of every other participant. Assuming that people often have a couple of devices this makes it a 4N^2 problem. It needs to become possible to do secure group chat with 20 people without requiring herculean coordination efforts.

Matrix/Synapse may be doing better with its private chat room feature, but there also need to be usability improvements to eliminate the key verification nightmare.

So the ecosystem is moving. Not in Moxie's direction, but it is moving. An easy prediction is that the next decade will be more volatile than the last. Expect economic, political and environmental shocks. The last decade may have been the era of tech monoliths, but in the turbulent future those systems are going to fail, and fail hard.

Tags: chat, signal, decentralization