Peer-to-peer messaging is as reliable as Facebook Messenger or Discord, but you stay in control of your data and don’t rely on a third-party server to talk with people. It’s a better way to communicate.
Fundamentals of Peer-to-Peer Messaging
When you send a message to a friend via Facebook, WhatsApp, Discord or most other messaging services, the message is relayed by you, the client, to a central server. The central server then routes the message to a second client: your friend. Very broadly, the client requests services, and the server fulfills them. This is called the client-server model. The client-server model is extremely common and is used by most online services you know – everything from Netflix and Facebook to World of Warcraft. All your data is stored by a third party, and you rely on them completely. You have no way of verifying that they are handling 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 bypass the middleman altogether. Instead of a client transmitting a message to a server to relay it to a second client, the clients simply transmit data between themselves. In P2P messaging applications, each participant effectively operates as a client and server simultaneously.
We’ve all experienced the occasional frustration when our favorite messaging platform is down. P2P messaging platforms do not suffer from this same point of failure. Since P2P messaging programs pass information directly between people who are texting, they will continue to work as long as the network (like the internet or a local area network) between the devices is still working.
Phones can even connect using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to exchange P2P information without any existing network infrastructure. This can be useful when, for a number of reasons, conventional wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi networks or cellular data, are unavailable. These P2P networks are often referred to as “wireless ad hoc networks” or “mesh networks”. The name of mesh networks comes from the appearance of the layout of the network when you represent it visually.
To note: Strictly speaking, no everything Mesh networks are wireless ad hoc networks, but the terms are often used interchangeably in this context.
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Typically, networks of this type allow participants to drop in and out freely as they move in and out of range, but only if they have permission to connect to other devices on the network.
Encryption is a way to protect data from prying eyes. All popular email services today store your messages encrypted, but there is a caveat – in many cases they can also decode messages without your knowledge. This means that while your messages may be protected (somehow) from a third-party attacker, it’s at least possible that they can be read by the company storing them for you.
There is a step up from regular encryption called end-to-end encryption (E2EE). E2EE configurations 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) cannot read them.
The combination of end-to-end encryption with P2P messaging provides the best privacy solution. Your messages are encrypted, which means no one can read them without the encryption key, and copies of the files are not stored somewhere on central servers.
The last point is important if you want to keep 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 encryption in the future, especially when quantum computers become a viable technology.
The Disadvantages of P2P Messaging
P2P messaging services have a few drawbacks. They often perform poorly in applications that require all clients to be synchronized, as group performance is usually throttled by the slowest member connecting. Additionally, P2P services typically have larger storage requirements than their client-server alternatives, because at least one full copy of every file or message must exist between participating users.
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Take for example Facebook Messenger. You and a friend have sent thousands of great memes back and forth, but the memes aren’t using up storage on your phones. This is because the burden of storing these files in your chat history is placed on Facebook’s servers. If you were using a P2P messaging app, however, the files would have to be stored on both of your devices if you both want to see them, or someone will have to re-share the files when they are needed.
P2P messaging apps you should be using
Firechat is probably the most famous messaging app that allowed you to use P2P messaging via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but it has since disappeared. In March 2022, there were relatively few apps ready for everyday use.
Briar for Android is the only such app we can recommend as of March 2022. (Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on iPhones.) stopped receiving updates.
Briar is fully equipped with end-to-end encryption and allows you to connect with your peers over the Internet, via the Tor network, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. You need to manually add any contact you want to connect with, to make sure you’re talking to the right person. Adding someone is simple – like many messaging apps, you can add yourself with a link or by scanning a QR code.
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It also allows you to post messages to a forum or blog visible to your contacts. If one of your contacts is out of range, a common contact can even act as a relay.
We tested Briar for a few weeks and found that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi messaging worked well within expected ranges.
Even if you’re not worried about your messages being encrypted, it’s good to know that you can send text messages or files to your nearby friends when your Wi-Fi and data are down, or when you’re in an area. with uneven service, like camping in the middle of nowhere.