Virtual Private Social Network: Tales of a BBM Exodus

bbmTimeToSayGoodbye

On Thursday April 18, my primary mechanism for talking to friends notified me that it was going away. I’d been using BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) since I started work at Research in Motion in 2008 and had found it to be tolerably built. It messaged people instantly over any data connection I had access to, what more could I ask for?

The most important BBM feature in my circle of contacts was its Groups feature. A bunch of people with BBM could form a Group and then messages, video, pictures, lists were all shared amongst the people in the group.

Essentially it acted as a virtual private social network. I could talk to a broad group of friends about the next time were getting together or about some cute thing my daughter did. I could talk to the subset who lived in Waterloo about Waterloo activities, and whose turn it was for Sunday Dinner. The Beers group kept track of whose turn it was to pay, and it combined nicely with the chat for random nerdy tidbits and coordinating when each of us arrived at the pub. Even my in-laws had a group to coordinate visits, brag about child developmental milestones, and manage Christmas.

And then BBM announced it was going away, giving users six weeks to find a replacement… or, as seemed more likely to me, replacements.

First thing I did, since the notice came during working hours, was mutter angrily that Mozilla didn’t have an Instant Messaging product that I could, by default, trust. (We do have a messaging product, but it’s only for Desktop and has an email focus.)

The second thing I did was survey the available IM apps, cross-correlating them with whether or not various of my BBM contacts already had it installed… the existing landscape seemed to be a mess. I found that WhatsApp was by far the most popular but was bought by Facebook in 2014 and required a real phone number for your account. Signal’s the only one with a privacy/security story that I and others could trust (Telegram has some weight here, but not much) but it, too, required a phone number in order to sign up. Slack’s something only my tech friends used, and their privacy policy was a shambles. Discord’s something only my gaming friends used, and was basically Slack with push-to-talk.

So we fragmented. My extended friend network went to Google Hangouts, since just about everyone already had a Google Account anyway (even if they didn’t use it for anything). The Beers group went to Discord because a plurality of the group already had it installed.

And my in-laws’ family group… well, we still have two weeks left to figure that one out. Last I heard someone was stumping for Facebook Messenger, to which I replied “Could we not?”

The lack of reasonable options and the (sad, understandable) willingness of my relatives to trade privacy for convenience is bothering me so much that I’ve started thinking about writing my own IM/virtual private social network.

You’d think I’d know better than to even think about architecting anything even close to either of those topics… but the more I think about it the more webtech seems like an ideal fit for this. Notifications, Push, ServiceWorkers, WebRTC peer connections, TLS, WebSockets, OAuth: stir lightly et voila.

But even ignoring the massive mistake diving into either of those ponds full of crazy would be, the time was too short for that four weeks ago, and is trebly so now. I might as well make my peace that Facebook will learn my mobile phone number and connect it indelibly with its picture of what advertisements it thinks I would be most receptive to.

Yay.

:chutten

Google I/O Extended 2019 – Report

I attended a Google I/O Extended event on Tuesday at Google’s Kitchener office. It’s a get-together where there are demos, talks, workshops, and networking opportunities centred around watching the keynote live on the screen.

I treat it as an opportunity to keep an eye on what they’re up to this time, and a reminder that I know absolutely no one in the tech scene around here.

The first part of the day was a workshop about how to build Actions for the Google Assistant. I found the exercise to be very interesting.

The writing of the Action itself wasn’t interesting, that was a bunch of whatever. But it was interesting that it refused to work unless you connected it to a Google Account that had Web & Search Activity tracking turned on. Also I found it interesting that, though they said it required Chrome, it worked just fine on Firefox. It was interesting listening to laptops (including mine) across the room belt out welcome phrases because the simulator defaults to a hot mic and a loud speaker. It was interesting to notice that the presenter spent thirty seconds talking about how to name your project, and zero seconds talking about the Terms of Use of the application we were being invited to use. It was interesting to see that the settings defaulted to allowing you to test on all devices registered to the Google Account, without asking.

After the workshop the tech head of the Google Home App stood up and delivered a talk about trying to get manufacturers to agree on how to talk to Google Home and the Google Assistant.

I asked whether these efforts in trying to normalize APIs and protocols was leading them to publish a standard with a standards body. “No idea, sorry.”

Then I noticed the questions from the crowd were following a theme: “Can we get finer privacy controls?” (The answer seemed to be that Google believes the controls are already fine enough) “How do you educate users about the duration the data is retained?” (It’s in the Terms of Service, but it isn’t read aloud. But Google logs every “consent moment” and keeps track of settings) “For the GDPR was there a challenge operating in multiple countries?” (Yes. They admitted that some of the “fine enough” privacy controls are finer in certain jurisdictions due to regs.) And, after the keynote, someone in the crowd asked what features Android might adopt (self-destruct buttons, maybe) to protect against Border Security-style threats.

It was very heartening to hear a room full of tech nerds from Toronto and Waterloo Region ask questions about Privacy and Security of a tech giant. It was incredibly validating to hear from the keynote that Chrome is considering privacy protections Firefox introduced last year.

Maybe we at Mozilla aren’t crazy to think that privacy is important, that users care about it, that it is at risk and big tech companies have the power and the responsibility to protect it.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Just keep those questions coming.

:chutten