Amid all the conversation about Signal, and the debate over decentralization, one thing has often not been raised: all of these things require an Internet connection.
“Of course,” you might say. “Internet is everywhere these days.” Well, not so much, and it turns out there are some very good reasons that people might want messengers that work offline. Here are some examples:
- Internet-using messengers leak certain metadata (eg, that a person is using it, or perhaps a sophisticated adversary could use timing analysis to determine that two people are talking using it)
- Cell signal outages due to natural disaster, large influx of people (protests, unusual sporting events, festivals, etc), or other factors
- Locations where cell signals are not available (rural areas, camping locations, wilderness areas, etc.)
- Devices that don’t have cell data capability (many tablets, phones that have had service expire, etc.)
How do they work?
These all use some form of local radio signal. Some, such as Briar, may use short-range Bluetooth and Wifi, while others use radios such as LoRa that can reach several miles with low power. I’ve written quite a bit about LoRa before, and its unique low-speed but extreme-distance radio capabilities even on low power.
One common thread through these is that most of them are Android-only, though many are compatible with F-Droid and privacy-enhanced Android distributions.
Every item on this list uses full end-to-end encryption (E2EE).
Let’s dive on in.
Of all the options mentioned here, Briar is the one that bridges the traditional Internet-based approach with alternative options the best. It offers three ways for distributing data:
- Over the Internet, via Tor onion services
- Via Bluetooth to nearby devices
- Via Wifi, to other devices connected to the same access point, even if Internet isn’t wokring on that AP
As far as I can tell, there is no centralized server in Briar at all. Your “account”, such as it is, lives entirely within your device; if you wipe your device, you will have to make a new account and re-establish contacts. The use of Tor is also neat to see; it ensures that an adversary can’t tell, just from that, that you’re using Briar at all, though of course timing analysis may still be possible (and Bluetooth and Wifi uses may reval some of who is communicating).
Briar features several types of messages (detailed in the manual), which really are just different spins on communication, which they liken to metaphors people are familiar with:
- Basic 1-to-1 private messaging
- “Private groups”, in which one particular person invites people to the chat group, and can dissolve it at any time
- “Forums”, similar to private groups, but any existing member can invite more people to them, and they continue to exist until the last member leaves (founder isn’t special)
- “Blogs”, messages that are automatically shared with all your contacts
By default, Briar raises an audible notification for incoming messages of all types. This is configurable for each type.
“Blogs” have a way to reblog (even a built-in RSS reader to facilitate that), but framed a different way, they are broadcast messages. They could, for instance, be useful for a “send help” message to everyone (assuming that people haven’t all shut off notifications of blogs due to others using them different ways).
Briar’s how it works page has an illustration specifically of how blogs are distributed. I’m unclear on some of the details, and to what extent this applies to other kinds of messages, but one thing that you can notice from this is that a person A could write a broadcast message without Internet access, person B could receive it via Bluetooth or whatever, and then when person B gets Internet access again, the post could be distributed more widely. However, it doesn’t appear that Briar is really a full mesh, since only known contacts in the distribution path for the message would repeat it.
There are some downsides to Briar. One is that, since an account is fully localized to a device, one must have a separate account for each device. That can lead to contacts having to pick a specific device to send a message to. There is an online indicator, which may help, but it’s definitely not the kind of seamless experience you get from Internet-only messengers. Also, it doesn’t support migrating to a new phone, live voice/video calls, or attachments, but attachments are in the works.
All in all, a solid communicator, and is the only one on this list that works 100% with the hardware everyone already has. While Bluetooth and Wifi have far more limited range than the other entries, there is undeniably convenience in not needing any additional hardware, and it may be particularly helpful when extra bags/pockets aren’t available. Also, Briar is fully Open Source.
Meshtastic is a radio-first LoRa mesh project. What do I mean by radio-first? Well, basically cell phones are how you interact with Meshtastic, but they are optional. The hardware costs about $30 and the batteries last about 8 days. Range between nodes is a few miles in typical conditions (up to 11km / 7mi in ideal conditions), but nodes act as repeaters, so it is quite conceivable to just drop a node “in the middle” if you and contacts will be far apart. The project estimates that around 2000 nodes are in operation, and the network is stronger the more nodes are around.
The getting started site describes how to build one.
Most Meshtastic device builds have a screen and some buttons. They can be used independently from the Android app to display received messages, distance and bearing to other devices (assuming both have a GPS enabled), etc. This video is an introduction showing it off, this one goes over the hardware buttons. So even if your phone is dead, you can at least know where your friends are. Incidentally, the phone links up to the radio board using Bluetooth, and can provide a location source if you didn’t include one in your build. There are ideas about solar power for Meshtastic devices, too.
Meshtastic doesn’t, as far as I know, have an option for routing communication over the Internet, but the devices appear to be very thoughtfully-engineered and easy enough to put together. This one is definitely on my list to try.
This is based on the LoRa Mesh Radio Instructables project, and is similar in concept to Meshtastic. It uses similar hardware, a similar app, but also has an option with a QWERTY hardware keyboard available, for those that want completely phone-free operation while still being able to send messages.
There are a number of related projects posted at Instructables: a GPS tracker, some sensors, etc. These are variations on the same basic concept.
These use the Ripple firmware, which is not open source, so I haven’t pursued it further.
For people that want less of a DIY model, and don’t mind proprietary solutions, there are two I’ll mention. The first is GoTenna Mesh, which is LoRa-based and sells units for $90 each. However, there are significant community concerns about the longevity of the project, as GoTenna has re-focused on government and corporate work. The Android app hasn’t been updated in 6 monnths despite a number of reviews citing issues, and the iOS app is also crusty.
Even more expensive at $125 each is the Beartooth. Also a proprietary option, I haven’t looked into it more, but they are specifically targetting backwoods types of markets.
Do not use: Bridgefy
Bridgefy was briefly prominent since it was used during the Hong Kong protests. However, numerous vulnerabilities have been demonstrated, and the developers have said they are re-working the app to address them. I wouldn’t recommend it for now.
Alternatives: GMRS handhelds
In the USA, GMRS voice handhelds are widely available. Although a license is required, it is simple (no exam) and cheap ($35) and extends to a whole family. GMRS radios also interoperate with FRS radios, which require no license and share some frequencies, but are limited to lower power (though are often sufficient).
Handheld GMRS radios that use up to 5W of power are readily available. A voice signal is a lot harder to carry for a long distance than a very low-bandwidth digital one, so even with much more power you will probably not get the same kind of range you will with something like Meshtastic, and they don’t come with any kind of security or encryption at all. However, for basic communication, they are often a useful tool.