Whether it’s through Signal, Telegram, or WhatsApp, more and more people nowadays are getting used to using encryption-based messaging apps as a way of keeping their everyday conversations secure.
A young Eindhoven-based startup is now bidding to join this big name list, with its own encrypted messaging service – Skotty.io – which its developers see as not just a rival to these established platforms, but to email itself.
Spurred by a passion for privacy, Mees Boeijen (22), together with friend and co-developer Oscar van der Vleuten have been working on Skotty for three years since meeting at Sint Lucas design school in Eindhoven.
“Privacy is very dear to me”, Mees Boeijen (Skotty co-founder and lead developer) tells me, as we sit in his office in the Strijp-S Klokgebouw. “It seems like we’ve all forgotten what it means”.
“The metaphor I use a lot is that back in the days when things were much simpler, you could just stand in your living room, close the doors and the curtains, and you could do whatever you wanted because nobody was watching”.
“But now so much of our lives is moving to these devices that we carry around, and the same happened with companies. Companies moved from their own walls to the walls of the cloud – which is not magic”.
“I think it’s time we get back our own walls, so our information is in a layer that’s in our control. To put you back in the driver’s seat of your information. This is a personal ambition I have for myself, but with Skotty we want to make this a commodity as well so everyone can communicate, fully protected, without other people listening to you”.
Asked to explain how Skotty works, Mees quickly turns to the origins of its name.
“When Oscar tried explaining the technology behind it to his dad, he realized it resembles some parts of the teleporter in Star Trek”.
“So what we do is, when two people are in the Skotty service, basically when a file is being transferred from one person to the other, they first establish a secure connection over which they can communicate directly, already covered by encryption”.
“Basically what they do with characters from the show, we do with files. So files are split up into tiny pieces at one end, and they travel over the internet on various pathways, and they’re collected back together in the original file. There is some resemblance there”.
But with the market for encrypted file and message sharing platforms already so crowded, what is it that sets Skotty apart from its competition?
“WhatsApp and Telegram also have end-to-end-encryption, which I think is wonderful – it’s really great to have that. But there’s one issue with those services, especially WhatsApp. First of all it’s owned by Facebook. And second of all it’s closed-source.”
“If you take these issues apart – Facebook is an advertising company. Everything they do comes from data being collected from users. And even though the content of the messages you send through WhatsApp are protected, the metadata isn’t. So it means they can still tell: ‘this person is communicating with this person’, ‘it might be about this matter because of the group name’, ‘perhaps the location information is not protected’… etc”.
“And the thing is, we have no clue. And that’s because the application is closed-source”.
“I think if you’re really serious about privacy, I think you should be as transparent as possible, and explain to people how your technology works so they can verify for themselves if the platform is as secure as the company claims it to be”.
The other key difference that Mees outlines, is that WhatsApp and Telegram are mobile based apps that require a constant phone connection to work. Skotty, by comparison, won’t need the user to download any app or install any additional software – it will run straight from any desktop browser.
Because of this, Mees sees his platform as being tailor-made to fit into the workflows of businesses, just as email currently does now. The benefit he explains, is that unlike email, Skotty based communication would be entirely secure, with files and sensitive material visible only to the sender and recipient.
“Email is a very old protocol. It’s not encrypted, and every server your email goes over can access info inside that email”.
“For sure any business could use our service, but there are a couple of sectors that care especially about the privacy of their information – legal services for example which need to provide confidential information to their clients. The finance sector – you don’t want your books being open to the public or being hacked. And healthcare – because your personal medical records should stay yours for sure”.
With the service about to be tested out by a handful of legal companies in an initial closed beta trial, and new developers currently being added to the team, Mees expects the final product to be market ready as early as autumn of this year. Beyond that, he is ambitious not only about the future of the platform, but for how Skotty might allow us to rethink our attitudes to privacy.
“I really wish though that in five years, our perspective on privacy has changed. That it will become normal that people think it’s important again. That we should have it by default, and that the thought that ‘oh it doesn’t matter, because they’re always watching’… that this idea disappears”.