Rhodri Marsden: Why chatting to strangers could be the key to protecting online privacy

  • @rhodri

Every week I download a bunch of apps for iOS and Android that deliver far less than they promise. Call me a weary cynic – God knows everyone else does – but my expectations of new apps are probably lower than when I tune in to watch England play cricket, and that's saying something.

Firechat is the latest one to make me sigh and drum my fingers; it has been rocketing up the charts in various countries, but when I open it I just see a bunch of pseudonymous strangers typing witless messages. “So what's the deal with this app lol” / “You a womble” / “Im confused whats goin on” was one typically vapid exchange.

If this is the future of human communication then we've got a trying few years ahead of us.

But there's more to Firechat than bad spelling. Along with the dubious privilege of shooting the breeze with precisely 80 random strangers in your country, there's a second screen, labelled “Nearby”, that uses a feature Apple recently introduced to iOS called Multipeer Connectivity.

This feature lets you communicate wirelessly with people around you without connecting to the internet at all. My “Nearby” screen is, needless to say, currently empty; no one within 50ft of me has this app, and if they did I'd hope that they'd want to chat face to face rather than key in a message with their thumbs. But multipeer connected devices could represent a radical change in the way we communicate.

If you get a number of them in a relatively small area, they can form a “wireless mesh” network. All those devices can talk to each other in an internet-like fashion without needing an internet connection.

So if you're at a festival in a remote part of Wales, or in a club underneath a railway station, you can shunt messages backwards and forwards between friends, with all the other devices on the network playing their part in relaying them. An app that was released in November for Android called Tin Can (strings, tin cans, geddit?) worked in precisely this way; your internet connection might be dead, but your communication network is very much alive.

In densely populated areas, apps using multipeer connectivity could bring about new ways of communicating, file sharing or gaming – ones that are untraceable, unpoliceable and as anonymous as you like.

It's not hard to see the appeal at a time when people are so concerned about privacy.

But there's more. If one of the devices in the mesh is connected to the internet, it can allow the whole mesh to go online, too.

So, through an ingenious process of digital daisy chaining, places that previously had no internet access – whether it's your basement or a village in Indonesia – could get online relatively easily.

Open Garden, the startup behind the Firechat app, has produced an eponymous app that does this with a minimum of fuss, quietly finding the easiest route to the internet for your computer or mobile device.

It makes the whole idea of Wi-Fi access points or even ISPs look faintly preposterous, and as a consequence it has already been blocked by American carrier AT&T, fearful of how it takes control out its their hands.

So yes – Firechat may appear on the surface to be a worthless chat app, but the underlying technology represents something far more dynamic. Even more dynamic than a Womble. If that were possible.