FireChat App Seriously Overhyped

Here is a hypothetical example of how surveillance agencies create a free data mining tool, then throw the bone to the mainstream media to create a lot of hype and buzz about it, and gather the data from the users who bought the hype.

Last two weeks, Internet is buzzing with news from Hong Kong and how FireChat is helping the students who fight for democratic elections in Hong Kong overcome the draconian censorship of the Communist Chinese government.

We see news of FireChat on TV, in major online tech magazines and Twitter timelines – everywhere. Naturally, users start feeling curious and download the app only to send their emails to the company’s servers. Via Internet, by the way, despite the app’s promise to provide you a way to chat ‘off-the-grid.’

But let’s see if unhappy user reviews mean a really poor execution of a great idea, or the majority of users simply got the whole idea wrong, and that’s why they post the mean reviews.

How It Works

FireChat [Android, iOS]
Open Garden
Category: Social
Price: free

FireChat lets users create peer-to-peer public chat rooms, where each device connects to the other via Wi-Fi Direct or Bluetooth. The end result should be a public chat room, which means that any FireChat-enabled device can read and contribute to the chat room.

As you install the app, it asks you to let FireChat use your device’s Bluetooth at all times to let others tap into it and expand the mesh network reach. Note that the app wants to run in the background at all times, even when you are logged out. You may disallow, but that does not change the outcome.

It does require you sign up and provide your email address during the procedure. It does have a bug in the sign up process, which does not let you create a password for your account, so when you log out, you can’t sign back in, and have to go through the password reset procedure. Mind you that you submit your email to the company’s servers for storage.

The next frequently reported bug is the app keeps running in the background even when you’re logged out, and it keeps sending you notifications about new chat messages. Pair that with the app’s heavy reliance on GPS, yes it tracks your location for a good reason – to find the FireChat users in your immediate vicinity and connect you to the mesh network. But when the app keeps running in the background with the GPS on, it kills the battery in no time.

There is more. Users report the app kept sending them chat notifications even when the GPS was off, and data connection was on, which means it simply uses Internet to keep you in the system at all times.

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The Audience

The next issue I see is the audience. Let us assume you are not in Hong Kong protesting (non-/)existing oppression (these students spent too little time living under the British rule), so why would you be interested in a public chat, where anyone can join in a conversation? You can’t use it for private conversations; you can’t lock your chat rooms with passwords. Your newly created chat room is visible for anyone to join. It does not take a scientist to figure out there is a lot of swearing, dumb attempts at hook-ups and teenage, or grown-up, bullies because this is what happens in non-moderated public forums.

Let us suppose you might be using it with your friends to exchange private messages without paying for your Internet connection or wireless carrier SMS fees. You have to be in the approximate vicinity (up to 200 feet) for your devices to create the peer-to-peer connections, and unless it’s the saddest story of Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo is hiding underneath her balcony to text her serenades so that their parents don’t see the kids’ texting bills, I don’t see how this can be much fun. Besides, finding the right chat room is a challenge since there is no search option, and the list of existing rooms is constantly changing.

Obviously, mass events like the one in Hong Kong or Ferguson can and will benefit from the apps like these because it’s nothing a wireless carrier or Internet provider can put a lid on – it’s peer-to-peer.

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Pros

  • Creates a peer-to-peer connection with public chat rooms
  • Uses WI-Fi and Bluetooth to connect, GPS to find peers
  • Chat rooms are open for everyone to join
  • Great for mass gatherings, especially revolutions
  • Overcomes governmental censorship, and even if your government closes down Twitter, FireChat keeps working as long as there are peers. In other words, no pasaran!

Cons

  • The sign up process requires both your email and Internet connection
  • There is no way to set a password when creating an account
  • When you log out, without having set your password, you need to use the option to restore password to log back in
  • When you log out, the app keeps sending you message notifications
  • The app keeps running in the background at all times
  • The app’s reliance on GPS drains the battery
  • Even when the GPS is off, the app keeps running on your data connection, sending you intrusive message notifications
  • The chat rooms are not moderated, so expect to face the human behavior at its worst. Bringing strangers closer in non-moderated chatsĀ  may have an effect opposite to positive.
  • It’s neither private, nor secure
  • Performance is far from stellar
  • There is no way to search the existing chat rooms; the list of existing rooms is constantly changing

Final Words

FireChat is one of the many apps in the market that wants to bring people closer, and its excellent idea is currently plagued by poor execution. I don’t suppose Open Garden get worried too much about teen bullying in non-moderated public chat rooms, but the creators of the Secret app weren’t either, until the recent scandal undermined the entire startup’s reputation.

The pros and cons of FireChat are pretty obvious, and leaving out the media buzz aside, see it for yourself if your buddies can make good use of an app like FireChat.

P.S. If I were a surveillance agency, I would have created an app like that.