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Matrix: A Self Hosted Instant Messaging Solution with End to End Encryption

Posted on 23 Aug 2020, tagged technologyMatrixinstant messagingcensorship

Updated at sep 6, 2020: change the title and add other articles in this series.

This article belongs of a series of articles that talk about how to build an instant messaging system without censorship:

  1. Matrix: A Self Hosted Instant Messaging Solution with End to End Encryption
  2. Overview of China’s Internet censorship strategy
  3. Deploy Matrix for Users in China

Instant messaging (IM) software maybe the most commonly used type of software. Privacy is especially important for instant messaging apps. No one wants to be eavesdropped when talking with friends and family. However, most of the instant messaging applications don’t have end to end encryption, which means the service provider can see all the messages. This information is much more sensitive than financial information, yet we have regulations for banks but have basically zero regulation for instant messaging providers. Sometimes it’s even worse while having regulations: Chinese government can require the provider to hand over server data by law (Ironically, the offical website of Cyberspace Administration of China doesn’t even have https). That’s why TikTok is such a hot topic recently. And while Tencent saying they never look at the messages in WeChat, I never trust them. There are even news that showing QQ (another IM software provided by Tencent that is very similar with WeChat) messages helped the police to find criminals. Even if the providers don’t look at the data as they declared, as long as they store the data, it becomes permanent record. You don’t know who will use that data on what purpose in the future.

There are a few IM software that have end to end encryption built in. However, each of them has some shortcomings which prevent them to be truly secure. For example, Signal is considered as the most secure one, but it needs a phone number and use it as verification sometimes. As we all know, text message is very easy to be hacked. While the hacker cannot view the message history in Signal, it may makes the account disappear. (The technology details behind this is complex, I may write another article to explain this in the future). WhatsApp is another popular one. But it’s not open sourced so it’s hard to tell if it’s doing something secretly or really implementing the end to end algorithm correctly. Most important of all, end to end encryption doesn’t mean decentralize. They all have centralized servers. And unfortunately, the servers are all blocked by China.

There are also some P2P IM software. I tried a lot of them. Most of them don’t have end to end encryption. And they are all too slow to have a good user experience.

So the ideal solution would be deploying an instance messaging system with end to end encryption by myself. Signal is open sourced. The server code is clean and easy to deploy. But as I said before, I don’t like the use of phone number. And because it’s not designed for decentralized deployment, the iOS and Android client needs to be modified to bind push keys from Apple and Google in order to have notifications. Downloading a customized version of client is not very user friendly.

Then I found Matrix, an open standard for instant messaging. It’s decentralized by design. People can have different service providers like Email. People can speak with other persons on other server. The servers talk with each other to deliver messages. The username of Matrix contains the server name, so the servers can tell where to deliver messages. The diagram below shows how user1 on talks with user2 on

          |    ^
          |    |
          V    |
          |    ^
          |    |
          V    |
          |    ^
          |    |
          V    |

While it has a lot of clients, the most popular one is Element(used to be named Riot). The most popular server is Synapse. The authentication server is separated from the messaging server. Sydent is a one of the implementations. Synapse and Sydent are both written in Python. While it takes some efforts to deploy it, they are both well documented and shouldn’t be too hard for someone with server admin experience.

It would be much easier if we live in a world without Internet censorship. However, Chinese government built powerful tools and strict policies around it. In the future articles of this series, I will give a brief overview of Chinese goverment Internet censorship strategies, and some options to deploy Matrix servers with such restrictions.