Firechat Enables the Crowd to Become the Internet –Bypassing Central Powers

(Above pic: Thousands of HK protesters link their phones together using Bluetooth to become their own internet –overcoming the government ban on social media sites. Photo credit: Alex Hofford)

If you thought peer-to-peer-based Uber, Airbnb, Lyft and Lending Club were disruptive, you haven’t seen anything yet.

People are empowered –through commonly used technologies
Previous revolutionaries have used pitchforks, wagon barricades, pamphlets, signs and drums. Today’s revolutionaries are using Firechat. It’s not just for revolutionaries, as I just downloaded Firechat. If you want to communicate during an emergencies, in the subway or on a plane, you can download Firechat too.

Seven month old app enables the crowd to become the internet
Seven month old Firechat enables people to become the internet themselves by turning their phones into a network, bypassing access to the worldwide web. The preceding picture shows Hong Kong protesters “armed” with smartphones, using their devices as a single, united network to communicate, call in resources, talk to media, and tell their story globally – even when the government had shut down many internet services. This video tells first hand.

Firechat enables the crowd to connect to each other as one resilient network
Meet Firechat, the app for crowds, communities, and revolutionaries. Downloadable for free, Firechat enables you to chat with other people around you WITHOUT the internet. That’s right, it uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals to create a “mesh network” where individuals can pass messages to each other on a peer-to-peer basis. It can also be used on the grid for further access. When it was first launched in March, Taiwanese protesters quickly adopted Firechat.

When would such a use case be common?

  • With friends are on a plane that doesn’t offer Wi-Fi
  • Camping with a troop of scouts
  • In the desert at Burning Man when the weather goes bad
  • In the subway with a group of colleagues
  • At a concert or sports event when cell infrastructure overloads
  • Austin during SXSW as cell networks are crammed from selfies
  • At a protest when a government disables social media or the internet
  • On a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean with your extended family
  • For victims and first responders after a natural disaster
  • In a foreign country where you’re concerned that someone might be sniffing your data
  • In a village in an emerging country, where people have phones

Firechat enables P2P communication, bypassing centralized powers
Firechat enables people to connect to each other, peer-to-peer, without relying on a central telecommunications source, like an ISP, a government, or other system.  In fact, in the last few hours, Firechat has been reported to have been downloaded 100,000 times, especially by Hong Kong protesters who are demanding people’s democracy after the government shut down the internet. Bruce Schneir, a top electronic security expert, writes the following:

“Firechat is theoretically resistant to the kind of centralized surveillance that the Chinese government (as well as western states, especially the US and the UK) is infamous for. Phones connect directly to one another, establish encrypted connections and transact without sending messages to servers where they can be sniffed and possibly decoded.”

Part of a broader suite of products – nearly impossible to stop
I had a chance to get some answers from Christophe of the Firechat team. The parent company is called Open Garden, which has the mission of: “…helping build a new decentralized mobile Internet.” The only way to stop Firechat is: Forbid people to download it (impossible through P2P file sharing), disabling power to a phone, or confiscating the phone. When it comes to speed, he told me that news broke of the closure due to weather at Burning Man on Firechat before it hit Twitter. In a remote area, the P2P network was stronger and faster.

Security and identity still questionable
I asked the team, how safe and secure is it, really? They responded, “Firechat is a public chat app. Everything that you type is public. Our mantra is, ‘do not use your real name or type anything you would not want someone else to read,’ But give us enough time and you’ll see what we come up with…” They mentioned that, in the future, they may be able to develop new forms of verified identity. I’ve seen these emerge in now defunct apps like Honestly, which verified if you had a real LinkedIn account without disclosing your name or identity.

Requirement: Adoption and Proximity
It’s also key to note that Firechat requires density and velocity to work well, adoption strategy is key. Also, users must download the app –before a severe outage –meaning adopting is required. There’s two scenarios: People anticipating to connect while going off the grid while traveling, or two: in response to an emergency, opposition from powers. The software worked well in dense SF (the second most dense city in USA) but when off the grid in the suburbs there were not folks in immediate proximity available to create a mesh network, see screenshot.

Forward looking thoughts:

  1. Expect Facebook, Twitter and Google to acquire or build these mesh technologies. Expect Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, each of which has been blocked by various governments, to develop this same P2P technology, enabling their experience to be shared all the time, regardless of a central power.
  2. A distributed network puts centralized telecom players on notice. This poses interesting questions to governments, internet service providers, telecommunication companies, and even marketers who rely on platforms like Facebook or Twitter. We’ve already seen the rise of FON, a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi device that enables people connect. This is more of the same.
  3. This is part of the continued trend of the crowd-based collaborative economy. I’ll likely include Firechat in some aspect of the next iteration of the Collaborative Economy honeycomb framework, as the next step is enabling people to share the physical world with each other using this P2P communications network.

The bottom line: People are empowered to get what they need from each other using commonly available technologies. It means the crowd is becoming like an organized company – and that they will bypass inefficient institutions. Get your organization ready now.