FireChat: Yet another spurious techno-panacea

Almost every day we hear about some new “revolutionary” technology that is going to make the world a more open, transparent, and better place.

There have been a few high profile ones in recent days, including the new social network Ello, which is being pushed as the “anti-Facebook” (it’s nothing of the sort). Ello claimed that 30,000 people per hour have been trying to sign up to be users of the beta version of its software.

And the mass street protests in Hong Kong have focussed attention upon an app for smartphones called “FireChat” which is, apparently, going to bring an end to totalitarianism, create an open and transparent world, and so on.

The Guardian’s reporting on FireChat is just a tiny bit over-excited.

In an article subheaded “The internet is vulnerable to state intervention, but demonstrators have found a way around it”, journalist Archie Bland concluded: “If the Communist party isn’t quite reeling, its opponents’ lives have at least got a little easier.”

The BBC begins its report on FireChat by noting that “news about the protests in Hong Kong have been suppressed in mainland China, where the picture sharing site Instagram has been blocked. Messages posted to Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter, are being blocked in far greater numbers than normal. And on Sunday, rumours reportedly circulated that the authorities in Hong Kong might shut down the city’s cellular networks.”

In response to this state censorship, hundreds of thousands of people, including many of the demonstrators, have downloaded FireChat and are using it to communicate, as did protestors earlier in the year in Taiwan, Iran and Iraq. They’re avoiding government censorship, and have no need for wi-fi or even a cellular phone signal.

So what does this amazing new app do?

Essentially, it allows people to communicate with others using smartphones via Bluetooth.

Bluetooth, as you may know, is a way for devices to communicate over very short distances — up to around 10 meters. If you’re using wireless headphones for your phone, you’re probably using Bluetooth.

So what FireChat might be good for is sending a text message to people standing right next to you. Or the people behind them.

These are the same people you could probably get a message to by … talking.

Yes, the technology could be useful in places where talk is impossible (e.g., loud concerts).

But to pitch it as an alternative to the Internet or cellular phone networks is absurd.

And another thing: Governments are able to listen in to Bluetooth communications in the same way they can listen in to any radio communication. So FireChat by definition is not secure.

Micha Benoliel, whose San Francisco company makes FireChat, admits that his software is not secure, telling the Guardian that he “recommends people avoid real names; this is, he says, for information-sharing, not for secrets”.

So much for FireChat being a way around state snooping.

This is not to say that “mesh computing”, which is what FireChat does, is not interesting.

As the Guardian article explains, “Every new participant increases the network’s range and strength.” Imagine people passing a message through a crowd; that’s how it works.

Benoliel put it this way: ‘Usually, the more people there are in the same location, the less connectivity you get. But with our system, it’s the opposite.”

The uses of a tool like FireChat would appear to be limited to a very small area — for example, groups of people who are already attending a demonstration to communicate with one another.

But it could not be used, as the BBC suggests, to spread word that protests are taking place to people who are not actually there. FireChat cannot be used to inform people on the mainland what is happening in Hong Kong. It cannot even be used to spread the word in Hong Kong beyond the group of people already attending the protest.

For that you need a network with a range greater than 10 meters — a network of real people who use any and every technology to spread the word.

Unfortunately, there are no technological shortcuts.

This article appears this week in Solidarity.