Miguel Freitas, an engineer based in Rio de Janeiro, has started building a more secure and robust alternative to Twitter, making use of code from two other massively successful online projects: Bitcoin and BitTorrent.
His alternative is called Twister. It’s a decentralized social network that, in theory, can’t be shut down by any one entity. What’s more, Twister is designed to prevent other users from knowing whether you’re online, what your IP address is, or who you follow. You can still post public messages a la Twitter, but when you send direct and private messages to others, they’re protected with the same encryption scheme used by LavaBit, the e-mail provider used by Edward Snowdan.
Freitas and his collaborator Lucas Leal have completed a test version of the app that runs on Android, Linux, and OSX. Freitas has no plan to create a Windows or iPhone version, but since the code is open source, others are free to port the app to additional operating systems.
Other decentralized alternatives to Twitter and Facebook — such as Pump.io, Identica and Diaspora — require that you either operate your own dedicated server or trust someone else to run a server for you. Twister works more like peer-to-peer file sharing software: Launch the app, and it connects with other users. There’s no need for a central server.
It manages this trick through the bitcoin protocol, though not the network that actually drives the digital currency. Basically, the protocol handles user registration and logins. Just as machines — called miners — verify transactions over the bitcoin network to ensure no one double-spends bitcoins and everyone spends only their own coins, a network of Twister computers verifies that user names aren’t registered twice, and that posts attached to a particular user name are really coming from that user.
Posts are handled through the BitTorrent protocol. This lets the system distribute a large number of posts through the network quickly and efficiently, and it lets users receive near-instant notifications about new posts and messages — all without the need for central servers.
Freitas points out that if someone is monitoring your internet traffic — or mass monitoring internet users — they’d still be able to find your IP address, and suggests those looking for additional protection consider the Tor Project‘s anonmity software.