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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.

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

But beneath the familiar veneer, it's quite different. Syme encrypts all content, such as status updates, photos and files, so that only people invited to a group can view it. Syme, which hosts the content on its Canada-based servers, says it can't read it.

"The overarching goal of Syme is to make encryption accessible and easy to use for people who aren't geeks or aren't hackers or who aren't cryptography experts," said co-founder Jonathan Hershon.

Hershon is part of a bright trio who have self-funded Syme's development while working out of their homes and studying at McGill University in Montreal. Hershon is studying psychology, Louis-Antoine Mullie is a medical student with a strong technology background, and Christophe Marois, who works on the user interface, studies music.

"We have very low operating costs," Hershon said.

It may be the just the right time for Syme, which is now open to all after an invite-only beta trial. The technology industry, shaken by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden's revelations of large-scale surveillance efforts by the U.S. and U.K., is looking for better ways to shield user data from prying eyes.


Law enforcement agencies around the world are also increasingly filing requests for data to companies such as Facebook and Twitter, who are compelled by law to turn over data, sometimes without informing users.

Appropriate for a privacy-centered service, "Syme" is named after a character in "1984," George Orwell's chilling novel describing total state control. In the book, Syme was "vaporized" for being a free-thinking individual.

Syme's user interface is refreshingly free of clutter. A bell icon, which shows the number of unread notifications, and a cog icon, to adjust settings, are both very similar to Google Plus. It has a "Like" button, just like Facebook.

"We wanted to make something that people could easily recognize and feel at home with," Hershon said.

Although Syme has elements of Facebook and Google Plus, it is more of a group messaging tool along the lines of WhatsApp: A person creates a group and invites others, who receive the necessary decryption keys to see posted content.

A JavaScript-based browser extension encrypts content with a person's Web browser before it leaves the computer. Syme is using the Stanford JavaScript Crypto Library in its browser extensions, a vetted open-source cryptography component.

So far, Syme has built an extension for Google Chrome with ones for the Firefox and Safari browsers in the works, as well as mobile applications for iOS and Android, Hershon said.

Content remains scrambled as it traverses the Internet and is unreadable even to Syme, which stores the data on its servers. Co-founder Mullie authored a white paper describing Syme's use of a two-step, hybrid encryption system that is fast, secure and efficient.


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