Why you should be using peer-to-peer messaging apps

P2P headerigor kissilev/shutterstock.com

Peer-to-peer messaging is just as reliable as Facebook Messenger or Discord, but you stay in control of your data and don’t rely on a remote server to talk to people. It’s a better way to communicate.

Peer-to-Peer Messaging Basics

When you send a message to a friend via Facebook, WhatsApp, Discord or most other messaging services, the message from you, the customer, is forwarded to a central server. The central server then sends the message to a second client: your friend. In general, the client asks for services and the server fulfills them. This is called the client-server model. The client-server model is very common and used by most of the online services you’re familiar with – everything from Netflix and Facebook to World of Warcraft. All your data is stored by a third party and you rely on it completely. There is no way you can verify that they handle your data responsibly and you must trust that they will continue to allow you to use their service.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) services eliminate these problems. It is possible for computers to exchange information directly and skip the middleman completely. Instead of a client delivering a message to a server to forward to a second client, the clients simply send data between themselves. In P2P messaging apps, each participant effectively functions as both a client and a server at the same time.

Example of a P2P network. Hero Designs/Shutterstock.com

Improved reliability

We’ve all experienced frustration when our favorite messaging platform isn’t available. P2P messaging platforms do not have the same point of failure. Because P2P messaging programs send information directly between the people who are texting, they will continue to work as long as the network (such as the Internet or a LAN) between the devices is still working.

Phones can even be connected via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to exchange P2P information without any existing network infrastructure. It can be useful when conventional wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi networks or mobile data, are unavailable for various reasons. These P2P networks are often referred to as “Wireless Ad Hoc Networks” or “Mesh Networks”. The name mesh networks comes from how the network layout looks when you display it visually.

Note: Strictly speaking, not all mesh networks are wireless ad hoc networks, but the terms are often used interchangeably in this context.
Mesh/P2P Network DiagramArtistdesign29/Shutterstock.com

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Typically, these types of networks allow participants to enter and exit freely as they go in and out of range, but only if they are allowed to connect to other devices on the network.

Better privacy

Encryption is a way to protect data from prying eyes. All popular messaging services these days store your messages encrypted, but there is a caveat: in many cases they can also decrypt the messages without your knowledge. That means that even if your messages are (sort of) safe from a third-party attacker, it’s at least possible that they can be read by the company that stores them for you.

There is a step beyond regular encryption called end-to-end encryption (E2EE). E2EE settings encrypt the message on the sender’s device and the message can only be decrypted by the designated recipient(s). Even your Internet Service Provider (ISP) can’t read them.

Combining end-to-end encryption with P2P messaging provides the best privacy solution. Your messages are encrypted, meaning no one can read them without the encryption key, and copies of the files are not stored anywhere on central servers.

The last point is important if you’re concerned about keeping your conversations private forever. Current encryption schemes are robust and effective against modern attacks, but there is no guarantee that they will be able to withstand attempts to crack the encryption in the future, especially when quantum computers become a viable technology.

The Disadvantages of P2P Messaging

P2P messaging services have some drawbacks. They often perform poorly in applications that require all clients to sync, because the performance of the pool is usually limited by the connection of the slowest member. In addition, P2P services typically have greater storage requirements than their client-server alternatives, as there must exist at least one full copy of each file or message among the participating users.

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Consider, for example, Facebook Messenger. You and a friend have sent thousands of grateful memes back and forth, but the memes don’t use up any storage space on your phones. That’s because the burden of storing those files in your chat history is placed on Facebook’s servers. However, if you were to use a P2P messaging app, the files would have to be stored on both devices if you wanted to see them both, or one person would have to share the files again when needed.

P2P Messaging Apps You Must Use

Firechat is probably the most well-known messaging app that lets you use P2P messaging over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but it hasn’t been available since. As of March 2022, there were relatively few apps that are ready for everyday use.

Briar for Android is the only app of its kind that we can recommend as of March 2022. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on iPhones.) There are others, but they are still in development, have bad user reviews, or have stopped receiving updates.

Fully equipped with end-to-end encryption, Briar allows you to connect with your colleagues via the Internet, via the Tor network, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. You’ll need to manually add each contact you want to connect to to make sure you’re talking to the right person. Adding someone is easy – like many messaging apps, you can add each other with a link or by scanning a QR code.

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It also allows you to post to a forum or blog that is visible to your contacts. If one of your contacts is out of range, a mutual contact can even act as a relay.

Briar diagram showing how information can be passed between clients that are not directly connected.

We tested Briar for a few weeks and found that the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi messaging worked well within the expected range.

Even if you’re not worried about encrypting your messages, it’s nice to know that you can text or send files to your friends nearby when your Wi-Fi and data are gone — or when you’re in an area. with spotty service, like on a camping trip in the middle of nowhere.

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