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New iPhone App Lets Users Chat Without Wi-Fi or Cell Coverage


"This method of communication is immune to firewalls like the ones installed in China and North Korea."

Maybe it's a secret about your friend's surprise party. Maybe it's a joke between co-workers about the crazy tie the boss is wearing in the meeting. Whatever the reason,  sometimes it's just better to send a text rather than say it out loud.

But what if you don't have a Wi-Fi connection or cell reception? There's now an iPhone app lets users chat to people in close proximity without the Internet.

m FireChat lets users chat at will without relying on cell phone reception or Wi-Fi connection. (Image source: Apple)

FireChat says it lets users message each other "off the grid," using an Apple iOS mobile software option called multipeer connectivity. This feature allows phones to connect to one another directly using Bluetooth as an alternative to the Internet.

FireChat's “nearby” chat room lets the iPhone user exchange messages with other users within 100 feet without sending data via the cellular provider. The tech startup Open Garden created the app, with CEO Micha Benoliel calling the approach “very interesting for multiplayer gaming and all kinds of communication apps.”

Anthony DiPasquale, a developer with consultancy Thoughtbot, said FireChat is the only app he’s aware of that’s been built to make use of multipeer connectivity, perhaps because the feature remains unfamiliar to most Apple developers, according to MIT Technology Review.

“I hope more people start to use it soon,” DiPasquale said. “It’s an awesome framework with a lot of potential. There is probably a great use for multipeer connectivity in every situation where there are people grouped together wanting to share some sort of information.”

Because, let's face it, who wants to miss out on these important conversations?

On the subway:

You: Is it me or does this car really stink?

Your buddy: It's you. And the car.

While camping:

You: I'm so glad we got out here and disconnected from the world.

Buddy: Totally. So glad I can't check Facebook right now.

With friends:

You: No cell reception - did you pick up the cake for Sharon?

Buddy: Yep, will be delivered by lunch!

At work:

You: That tie.

Buddy: I know.

Though the app is ripe for jokesters, the technology does present an interesting security advantage. Though the new iOS7 feature currently only supports data moving directly from one device to another, "Open Garden’s forthcoming software will extend the feature so that data can hop between two iPhones out of range of one another via intermediary devices," MIT Technology review reported:

Apps built to exploit device-to-device schemes can offer security and privacy benefits over those that rely on the Internet. For example, messages sent using FireChat to nearby devices don’t pass through any systems operated by either Open Garden or a wireless carrier (although they are broadcast to all FireChat users nearby).

The technique is called mesh networking, and is set to be the heart of several projects to create disaster-proof or community-controlled communications networks. And it means the content of a message and metadata can not be harvested from a central communications hub by an attacker or government agency.

"This method of communication is immune to firewalls like the ones installed in China and North Korea," said Matt Thompson, a software engineer who writes the iOS and Mac development blog NSHipster.

But a nosy neighbor can eavesdrop on peer-to-peer and mesh networking apps just by using a device within range.


(H/T: MIT Technology Review)

Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter.

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