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PAH: Watch out Facebook: McGill students launch a new encrypted social network

There are few social media websites that would make whistleblowers like Edward Snowden proud.

But that’s exactly what the creators of Syme are trying to do with their new  private, encrypted social network. The beta version of Syme — named after a character in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four who was “vaporized” by the Party because he remained a freethinking intellectual — was launched last week by three McGill students. Only a few days in, they already have the attention of tech magazines like PCWorld and racked up over 3,000 users. The issue of privacy is one that has turned many people away from conventional social media like Facebook and Twitter, and those are exactly the people Syme wants to reach out to. To get a better idea of their plan, I spoke toJonathan Hershon, a third-year psychology and political science student and the co-founder of Syme.

First of all, what is Syme?

Syme is a private social network that’s designed so that we, as the service provider, never have access to what you share. We want to bring more privacy to social networking through a technology called end-to-end encryption, which ensures that a message can only be seen by its intended recipients, and not by ad agencies or prying eyes.



Why do three psychology, medicine, and music students at McGill think they can compete with global tech giants like Facebook and Google? 

Facebook has over a billion active users and we have no plans on taking over. The idea with Syme is to offer a tool for people who value their privacy. Syme is slick, simple, ad-free, and offers something that Facebook and Google+ will never be able to offer: full confidentiality of the data you share.

The amount of work put into Syme suggests you have a long-term plan. I can see why privacy security and encryption would attract users, but how do you plan on making Syme a global player in the social media world and take users away from Facebook?

It’s not necessarily about “taking users away” from Facebook. Social tools are complimentary; signing up to Twitter doesn’t mean you won’t use Facebook anymore. Posting on Snapchat doesn’t mean you won’t post on Instagram. Having a LinkedIn profile doesn’t keep you from having one on Google+. These are all different tools with different benefits.

That said, as social networks are becoming less and less “personal,” people are turning toward alternative solutions to share in the comfort of privacy. We are currently undergoing a massive prise de conscience regarding the unsafe nature of the tools we use to communicate everyday, and the next big player in the social media world will have to address this growing concern. Syme is well positioned to this.

Your website says Syme is not NSA proof. If users aren’t protected from government snooping, what are the real benefits?

Nothing on the Internet is ever 100% secure. Syme is designed to prevent your posts from being caught up in the dragnet of governmental surveillance, but our software is still young and needs to be properly vetted. We’re currently working on that.

The NSA is a powerful, multi-billion dollar agency. Encryption makes it harder to spy on you, but it doesn’t make it impossible. Even if they can’t crack your encryption, they can find other ways to read your messages, for example by installing a Trojan on your computer, but this is expensive and time consuming. The idea with encryption is to make surveillance as hard and expensive as possible, so surveillance agencies will only go through the extra trouble if you’re a target.

Syme iOS

Why do you think people value privacy? So many people already seem willing to post every aspect of their lives online with no regard for security.

There’s a theory called “Moore’s law of sharing”, which says that the amount of information shared by people on the Internet doubles approximately every two years. I think people value their privacy more and more precisely because of Moore’s law. We’re realizing that virtually all details of our intimate lives, which we’ve openly shared over the years, are being stored somewhere in a database, and we have no clue where this information will end up or how it will be used in the future.

And this is all compounded with recent NSA revelations. U.S. cloud computing businesses are expected to lose up to $180 billion by 2016 because of the PRISM scandal alone. In the business and professional world, encrypted communication services are booming, and it’s only a matter of time until they go mainstream.

I also think the “mass market” already cares about privacy in a subtler way. ‘Private’ is in fact the most natural and intuitive way to share. More and more, people are moving towards online environments that match the privacy and intimacy of real-world sharing. We see this with the popularity of ephemeral communication apps like Snapchat. Snapchat messages only last an instant, much like they would if communicated in real life (in reality, Snapchat’s security isquestionable). With Syme, we’re trying to re-create the privacy and intimacy of your living room or boardroom, because only the people you speak with have access to what you share.

Aside from extra security, what’s different with Syme? Will it still allow you to do everything you can already do on Facebook or does it follow a new model?

For now, Syme is centered on private groups. You can set up a group for your close friends, family, or colleagues for example. The design is simple and sleek. There are no ads, or other annoyances.

How do you plan to monetize Syme?

Syme is 100% free with no ads and we don’t plan on deviating from that. We want to keep it accessible to anyone who wants to sign up. We’re working on creating a premium version that addresses the specific needs of businesses and professionals.

For businesses and professionals interested, what will be included in the premium version?

We’re currently working with healthcare and legal professionals, as well as with small businesses, to see how we could adapt to their particular needs.

Sign up for an account at and follow Syme on Twitter at @symeapp.

This article was originally posted HERE.


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