During the summer of 2013 the Internet was abuzz with the revelations of Edward Snowden. The PRISM scandal exploded and suddenly everyone had confirmation that everything they do online can be stored and monitored on a staggering scale.
As a direct result of this massive privacy breach, people around the world became motivated to fight back against what has developed into one of the biggest technology scandals of recent times.
One of those groups consisted of former Pirate Bay spokesman Peter Sunde, who together with friends and Flattr allies Linus Olsson and Leif Högberg began working on Hemlis, a messaging app for both iOS and Android. The aim of the game was for Hemlis (‘secret’ in Swedish) to provide absolute secrecy, with only the sender and recipient able to read messages – not middle men like prying governments.
“People act differently if they think someone is listening in to their conversation. That’s what Stasi taught us for instance. It’s one of many reasons why privacy is so vital,” Sunde told TF at the time.
But with hundreds of news articles behind them and the two-year anniversary of the project’s birth just around the corner, the Hemlis team have now delivered the ultimate in bad news.
“Lately we have been awfully quiet. The reasons are many, sad and non important right now. They have though made this project drag along and that made us understand a thing we feared for quite a while but neglected to accept. New messengers fail miserably,” the team said in a statement.
“Each new attempt has made us understand that our goal of creating a mass market messenger just based on the fact that it is private, secure and beautiful, is not nearly enough. As the only reason we are doing this is to give you viable huge scale alternative to the existing systems there is really only one thing to do at this stage. Accept our current roadmap and goals as defunct.”
While there were many reasons for the project to succeed, the challenges faced by the Hemlis team proved insurmountable.
At least initially, financing wasn’t a problem, with around $150,000 raised via a short crowd-funding campaign. Then disaster struck when around $30,000 disappeared after a bitcoin wallet was stolen from Hemlis’ bitcoin supplier. Keeping up with the budgets of the competition also took its toll.
“We decided to hire some people to help us out with the things we are not experts in. The process was slow and hit with lots of realizations that certain things would not work. The ideas were too complex and sometimes just too expensive,” Peter Sunde explains.
“We had a lot of money, but far away [from] the same amount (we’re talking millions or billions) that our competitors had access to… They’ve had more progress and financial support so they could speed up their process to the level that they’re now really good. Better than our messaging app could become right now. Ok, they’re missing on features but they have the ability and cash to resolve those issues. And our goal was always to ensure that the everyday users would be protected.”
But financial and technical issues aside, personal issues also played a big part in the project’s demise.
“In the middle of it all one of our team members got a kid and had to focus on that of course. I personally had other issues as I got kidnapped by the Swedish government and locked up for my work with another project – The Pirate Bay. In the middle of the kidnapping, my father died,” Sunde explains.
“I had no way of working on anything, and I’ve had a hard time with how I personally need to handle things. This project – as well as the other projects I’m involved in – were hit massively by my absence. And they still are, since I have not been able to get 100% on my feet yet. I’m getting there but just as with other things, it takes a lot of time.”
A few weeks ago Sunde said the team took a step back to assess its position. While decent apps for both iOS and Android exist semi-completed, Hemlis is far from a market-ready product. More time and money would be need to be pumped in for it to succeed.
“We decided that we could go two ways. We could ask for more money (a lot), either from the community or some investors. Or we could close down. Since we already got money from the community with way too little to show back from the expectations that felt wrong,” Sunde explains.
“And we don’t think that it would be a good idea to ask investors for money since we’d lose control over the project. So in the end, closing it down felt like the least bad thing to do.”
While many supporters of the project are supportive of the brave decision to close Hemlis down, others have been more critical. Some, having pumped money into the project and received nothing, are downright angry. Nevertheless, one of the big takeaways is that in some shape or form, Heml.is will be handed back to its backers.
“We’ll release the usable parts of the code as free software with the most free license we can. It belongs to the community (and the community paid for it),” Sunde says, adding that there may be other ways to achieve similar aims.
“I’m personally trying to influence people and politicians to make sure we don’t need systems like Heml.is. We should be protected by the governments instead of trying to protect ourselves from them. It’s a multi-angle attack needed, technology, political work and transparency,” Sunde concludes.