This is my first Patreon-supported essay, which went out a week early to my $10 and up subscribers. This was written in part in response to issues with the IWMF check-in tool, but it's something I've been concerned about for some time.
I have a Patreon, here, where you can subscribe to support my security and systems-focused writing. You sign up for a fixed amount per essay (with an optional monthly cap), and you'll be notified every time I publish something new. At higher support levels, you'll get early access, a chance to get in-depth answers to your questions, and even for more general consulting time.
© 2021 Eleanor Saitta.
Folks, you're doing awesome work, but enough is enough. We have enough secure messaging tools. We don't need any more.
I exaggerate. We still need better messaging tools that hide communications metadata. We need tools that can be used by nontechnical users in realistic scenarios. We need tools that let users get the full benefits of the security invariants the tools attempt to maintain. We need tools that let users move seamlessly between mobile and desktop, that let them communicate over local networks when the Internet is down, and that don't ask them to trust any central server. We need tools that do all of this and don't try to tell users how they should work, but rather support them in accomplishing their goals. This is a Hard Problem.
Tools like Trello and Slack have become popular because they've devoted a lot of polish to eliminating usability speedbumps for the tasks users are trying to accomplish in the world, not just for tasks in the software. Users care because they're trying to get work done, not demo security tools. The risk analysis of a potential attack versus a definite work slowdown is more complex than the security community often wants to accept.
Given that we still have so far to go, why am I telling people they should stop writing secure messaging tools? Because we have too many other tools we also need. I've worked inside a number of distributed organizations and talked to folks at many more, and there's a giant list of software that people rely on to get their work done. IM, chat, and email-like systems are just one small corner of the day-to-day life of a working team, whether that's an activist group with no formal leaders or office space, an NGO with staff deployed in a half-dozen countries, a freelancer-heavy news desk, or a law firm representing surveilled clients.
People who are actively targeted by adversaries or at elevated risk, who operate in geographically dispersed teams, and who work in places with intermittent connectivity (these conditions often go together), tend to find a number of software properties useful:
In some high-risk cases, folks may also need systems to be:
These kinds of decentralized-first applications require a somewhat different way of looking at the world for implementers, and one of the keys is that they're intended for use within teams, not by the Internet at large. In some cases, it may be useful to provide bridges to more traditional web interfaces for interacting with folks outside a team, but that's often not relevant.
So, what do people need with this feature set that's not IM, email, or chat? A lot of things. Here's twenty-four off the top of my and a few smart people's heads:
All of these systems depend on basic communications features. Some of these needs are partially met by existing implementations, but few of those meet the architectural requirements listed above that we see in the field. When deployed together in an organization, tools like these need to share basic trust and key or authentication structures. When a team depends on multiple systems for every day work, it's critical that they share security properties and failure modes. If they don't, users will get confused about which systems can guarantee which invariants when, and problems will result. Teams may want emergency communication systems with different properties and failure modes, but normal tools need to be similar.
Guaranteeing operational similarity requires coordinating threat models and security architectures between projects. Doing this well is hard, and requires a discipline that's still rare even in the security tools community. Building tools like these right means sharing underlying libraries to do the heavy lifting for communication and security. While we may have some of the pieces here, there's not yet an obvious choice for the set communication protocols on top of which to build. My personal favorite, Briar, is designed to enable tools like these. It's not ready yet, but the Briar team got some great news recently and we should be steaming ahead soon.
In the same way that we've only learned what makes sense with secure communications tools by building them and watching people use them in the real world, we're not going to learn how to build integrated, secure, and productive decentralized work environments without getting our hands dirty. If you're considering building a communication tool that doesn't advance the state of the art for the goals I stated up front, think about whether it's likely to improve security outcomes for users. If it doesn't advance the state of the art or directly improve outcomes, consider whether your effort would be better spent on something other than a communication tool. Diversity is good, but we have so many more things to build. Let's get started on the rest of the list.
If you liked this essay, you can sponsor me writing more. I've started a Patreon where you can pledge to support each essay I write. I'm hoping to put out one or two a month, and if I can reach my goal of having a day of writing work funded for every essay, it will make it much easier for me to find the time. In my queue right now are a piece introducing NGOs to what it takes to build good, secure software, more updates to my piece on real world use cases for high-risk users, and a multi-part series on deniability and security invariants that's been in the works for some time. I'd much rather do work that helps the community than concentrate on narrow commercial work that never sees the light of day, and you can help me do just that.