In this day and age where everyone uses one or another encrypted messaging system, one might ask: why Seeld? Why would someone even bother building yet another communication app?
To understand my motivations, let me take you a few years back in time…
Back in 2014
I was thinking about the problem of spam during a lunch break at work. Emails revolutionized how we communicate: the next big thing right after the commercialisation of the Internet! Unfortunately, they also came with their drawbacks. As soon as someone knew your email address, they could send you a message. The consequence? Spam, phishing, spear phishing, whaling, ransomware… Nowadays we’re all aware of those.
Also, by then, everyone met Edward Snowden. We “learned” that governments could spy on everyone they fancy and their grandma’s, and the term “mass surveillance” slowly gained traction. Thankfully, Moxie Marlinspike and his team at Open Whisper Systems took care of promoting encryption in messaging systems. I took a few years, but that had important consequences: nowadays no messaging app is taken seriously if it’s not encrypted. And that’s a great thing!
But something still would bother me. All these messaging apps must make money. But how exactly? We know that scanning emails or search terms is lucrative. It allows companies to build a profile of you. With that profile they target their ads to you. But if your messages are encrypted, what data do these companies harvest to build that profile?
“Free” doesn’t like privacy
The “free” business model means a company must use data to make a profit. So for encrypted messaging systems, they simply must leverage the unencrypted parts: when you write your messages, who do you send them to, where do you send them from… That’s called “metadata”.
We also know cases of companies designing their messaging app so that it allows insiders to take a peek. Even if such a company is ethical and forbids itself from looking at user data, one can always subpoena or hack its way to the precious info.
So we agree: “free” does not like data privacy. Unless a messaging system relies on donations, the money comes from your data. Or your metadata.
Why Seeld ?
Considering all the above, I naively decided to do something about it.
I wanted an app that encrypts your messages and your metadata. Even a systems administrator would not see anything about you. Furthermore, I did not want to reinvent the wheel. The protocols used had to be known and used by other apps.
I also wanted the app to be completely anonymous. Many times a service asks for your e-mail or phone number to register. I don’t like it. You can make links by simply knowing a person’s email address. That’s why Seeld would use pseudos.
And no one likes spam. So I decided to use an “authorized contacts” list: only persons you would first accept as contacts would be able to write to you, and vice-versa.
Finally, I wanted to make Seeld portable. You should be able to start a vanilla device, sign in, and retrieve all of your messages. TSA checks can be quite invasive. So one should be able to delete everything on his device, go through the check without worries, then reconnect to Seeld and have your data back on-screen.
It took me quite some time and three major rewrites. But in 2021 Seeld reached a usable state. A small group spent more than a year using it, testing it right and left. And in 2022 I silently opened it to the public.
But Seeld is free !
And I’m aware I just said that “free” is bad ! So what gives ? Well, you first have to realize what Seeld is.
Seeld is a small application. It uses a couple of servers at the time of writing this. That means: it doesn’t cost me much to run. You can only exchange messages for the moment. No space-hungry attachments, which would require buying more space and more servers.
Also, there is no SLA, no one to make sure that servers are running 100% of the time, like Facebook or Amazon. It’s on a “best effort” basis. Of course, I keep an eye on the servers every morning. I monitor the amount of subscribed persons and exchanged messages (only amounts; don’t forget I can’t see any details!). I can add a server of two if needed. But I sure hope I won’t get a million new users in a weekend!
That’s why Seeld is free: it sure works, but it’s not managed by a big company. A very small bunch of volunteers takes care of it.
Okay, so what’s next ?
Well, we know I cannot make money from harvesting Seeld’s data. This is perfectly fine, but it also means that Seeld cannot evolve a lot. There’s so much one can do on his spare time, without financing.
But there are options.
I could try and finance Seeld by selling subscriptions, the same way ProtonMail does. A subscription could enable things that would cost in terms of infrastructure, such as attachments (which take server space).
Or I could try to find donators or patrons to build a real team and keep Seeld running. Although one must keep in mind that, when financiers come into play, they get the right to steer a project in different directions.
However the one thing close to my heart would be to clean up that code and make it available to all. Anyone with enough technical knowledge would be able to rent a VPS server and install his own Seeld cluster. How cool would that be!
We’ll see what happens…
Header image by FreeImages.com/tome123