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Encrypted social network vies for disgruntled WhatsApp, Facebook users

Jeremy Kirk | Nov. 29, 2013
With the look of Google Plus and Facebook-like elements, a new social network named "Syme" feels as cozy as a well-worn shoe.

Rather than foiling government-sponsored hackers, Syme is aimed more at providing greater privacy. For example, data destined for Syme could be intercepted if a person's computer was hacked.

While it can't read the content, Syme does store metadata, or information describing aspects of communications, which can be useful to interested parties.

People register Syme accounts using an email address, and Syme can see which users have communicated with each other. It also knows when posts were written, when someone connected to Syme and the size of transferred files or photos. Hershon cautions that Syme is undergoing peer review and should not relied on for the transmission of super-sensitive messages.

The profile of a potential Syme user is someone who wants more secure, but not bulletproof, communication without, say, Facebook's sprawl and exposure.

"People are actively looking for alternatives" to securely share information, Hershon said. "That's the need that we're trying to fill."

Marc Beaupre-Pham, a 25-year-old software developer in Montreal, said his friends are increasingly using lean mobile applications for communicating within small groups.

"We've all kind of fallen off of Facebook and almost exclusively use WhatsApp now," he said.

But Beaupre-Pham said he doesn't have much confidence in WhatsApp's security. In early October, a security researcher found a flaw in WhatsApp's cryptography implementation that could have allowed attackers to decrypt intercepted messages.

Syme is "like a perfect replacement," said Beaupre-Pham, who tested the service during the beta period with his wife.

It's unlikely Syme can displace Facebook or Google Plus since the power of those networks is the ability to virtually contact anyone on them, said Thomas Karpiniec, an electrical engineer programmer for a technology consultancy based in Hobart, Tasmania, who has blogged about Syme's architecture.

"I don't think it's able to really compete with traditional social networks, but I think privacy-minded groups of people who have fairly clearly defined boundaries might be able to use it to chat with each other easily," Karpiniec said in a phone interview.

It may also be attractive to smaller businesses without resources to deploy their own private social networking infrastructure or those that do not want to put their data in Google Apps or Microsoft's Office 365 or, Karpiniec said.

Hershon said Syme will be free for now, although it is considering creating a premium paid-for service targeted at industries such as health care, law and publishing.


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