Berlin Start-ups: Encryption For Everyone

January 27, 2015 • Digital News • by

Berlin has become a mecca for rebellious technophiles, in a country already sensitive about data security and protection. Some of Edward Snowden’s biggest allies — Citizenfour filmmaker Laura Poitras, Internet activist Jacob Appelbaum and British journalist and Wikileak’s Sara Harrison — now call the city their home-in-exile. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which allow users to make pseudonymous transactions not regulated by a central bank or authority, have one of the world’s largest user-bases in Berlin.  It’s little wonder that a number of start-ups focused on encrypted communication, particularly on smartphones, are based in the German capital.

Encryption is a hot topic in the EU. Last month David Cameron, the British prime minister, proposed a ban on encryption, in order, he said, to boost national security. Popular encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and Snapchat could be used by terrorists, he cautioned. The EU anti-terrorism chief, Gilles de Kerchove, is this week expected to recommend forcing internet firms to help security services tap into coded emails and calls.

Below is a partial list of Berlin-based encrypted data sharing apps — which are useful and usable to anyone from journalists to the generally privacy-minded.

Wire: Backed by Skype co-founder Janus Friis, Wire is the latest mobile communication app in Berlin and, as an added plus, it also works on tablets and desktop computers.  Its headquarters are in Switzerland but about 65 percent of its employees are in Berlin, and all of its servers with the European Union.  “We wanted to be based in Europe, where strict consumer protection laws ensure users’ personal information is collected, stored, used and shared responsibly,” CEO Jonathan Christensen told EJO in an email.

Partnering with SoundCloud and YouTube, the app enables the exchange of messages, photos, music and video. For calls, the company offers end-to-end encryption (SRTP) for calls, and TLS (or Transport Layered Security, a cryptographic protocol) for media and messages from clients to servers. Still, information is located on company servers when users deactivate their accounts. The app fits into the trend of communication apps with more complex functionality, said Christensen. “Messaging and digital communications in general are moving from the purely functional silos (such as calling or short messaging) to more integrated, robust, and aesthetic ‘hubs,'” he wrote.  “As people establish network connections to the people they care about, they want to use the conversation context for any modality on any device.”

Telegram: Situated in the cloud, Telegram seamlessly syncs across all of a person’s devices, be it a smartphone, tablet or PC. It allows for an unlimited number of messages, photos or files of any type. A free service built by a Berlin-based non-profit, they vow not to sell personal information to advertisers. For particularly paranoid users, Telegram’s special secret chats use end-to-end encryption, are not stored on their servers, support self-destructing messages and forbid forwarding. These especially surreptitious messages don’t have cloud storage so that they can only be accessed in the device of origin. The company is so secure in its claims, that it will pay $300,000 to anyone who can hack Telegram-encrypted messages through a “cracking competition.”

Telekom and GSMK: Large, private business customers of Deutsche Telekom should not have to worry about their phones being hacked, thanks to an encryption-app launched by the behemoth company in August 2014. Developed by Berlin-based encryption specialist GSMK (Society for Secure Mobile Communication), the app allows users to send encrypted voice and text messages in countries that block voice services over the Internet. The version for Android and iOS phones functions with any phone network, even SIM card via a Wi-Fi connection or a satellite link. As it only needs 4.8 Kbps in order to function, the Telekom-app should still function in areas with poor Internet coverage.

Shoutr: Lack of a Wi-Fi connection will not hinder the uber-high tech app Shoutr. It allows users to share data anywhere — “on the subway, abroad, even on the Moon!” as they proclaim on their website — via their Android phones. It utilizes WPA2 encryption so, like Telegram, data is not sent to the cloud. A four-digit pin protects each account, but users also have the option to make their information public. The app is currently available on Android, the popular first-choice for many encrypted apps, with versions soon coming to Apple and Microsoft.

Zenmate: Originally available just on PCs, the app allows users to not only encrypt their messages, but all smartphone traffic. The winner of Europas Award for Best Privacy/Security Start-Up of 2014, much of the Zenmate’s initial growth was in countries with restricted Internet access, such as China and Iran, but lately it’s experienced a growth surge in Europe and the U.S. One of its best known traits is allowing users to hide their IP address, and in turn give their virtual location as anywhere in the world. First available as a Google Chrome plug-in, it’s now available on Android and iOS platforms.

Pic credit: Flickr Creative Commons: Yuri Samoilov

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