As more development teams than ever work remotely, they know better than most just how much the rise of consumer-grade collaboration tools [Zoom, Slack, WhatsApp etc.] is helping to build up security issues which will need to be resolved whenever the so-called ‘New Normal’ just becomes, well, normal.
The technical debt caused by hurriedly provisioned centralised collaboration channels may seem worth it at a time of lockdown crisis, but intellectual property theft literally robs developers of their jobs.
Growing doubts about data privacy from apps globally (from Hong Kong to London, from Seattle to Hamburg ) are setting in and turning the discussion from “which collaboration tool will users like best” to, simply, “is this a centralised, or decentralised, solution”.
Many, such as the German states of Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein, are opting for the latter.
From the September 2020 term, some half a million students, teachers and faculty will be protected by this decentralised platform, so their identities and communications are properly encrypted end-to-end, as many assume, incorrectly, their lockdown collaboration calls and messages are today.
Open source Matrix project
The ‘magic’ behind Element is the open source Matrix project maintained by the not-for-profit Matrix Foundation.
As with many elements, pun intended, of today’s cloud-native tech developments, the very notion of community, which sparked the need for data protection, turns out to be useful in a commercial context as well.
It is not the first time such an ‘accidental discovery’ has succeeded in the collaboration space, the great success of Slack came from coders working on a video game. Though given that Slack is not built specifically for secure communications, its recent use as a mainstream collaboration tool and much-publicised issues showed just how important data protection has become.
Element noticed in recent deals they’ve won that it is solving the technical issues around end to end (E2E) encryption and interoperability with other chat protocols such as IRC and XMPP, which most concern coders and so the wider world.
The development community is now demanding the ability to wrap Universal Secure Collaboration (USC) around a wide range of communications from those used to share and stage code to the video calls for agile team standups. Where the techies lead, large businesses and Governments will follow.
A European collaborative view
As European privacy legislation responds to change, many will for the first time look at US-based communications technology, for years best-in-class, differently. Because Element was not just designed for coders, but for anyone with data concerns, it gives organisations control over their own data and messages, something Slack and the consumer apps like Telegram, WhatsApp or Zoom cannot, or will not, deliver.
The ability to inspect code appeals greatly to technical teams, they want to see for themselves how secure their collaboration platforms are. No obfuscation, and certainly no backdoors thanks to a decentralised, open source approach, means one can self-host without the need for external service providers who can be pressured into granting third party access.
Best of all, an open source approach like the Matrix network allows governments and others to easily federate an Element-based implementation across multiple organisations and across private sector supply chains.
Traditional tools, such as WhatsApp or Slack, try to force every party to have to jump into their own walled garden just to collaborate because for centralised service providers, collaboration between different organisations isn’t a benefit, unless they charge more for it.
Lessons in these ‘strange times’
In times of crisis, we find out more about ourselves.
Many would agree with the proposition that we should not let this time be one where others find out every commercial secret we have, just because of our need to communicate. Developers have instinctively liked the co-operation and sheer productivity of open source solutions. It is only right then that this community guides others on the benefits of true universally secure collaboration.
The Matrix Manifesto is set out below to detail the beliefs of the group:
- People should have full control over their own communication.
- People should not be locked into centralised communication silos, but instead be free to pick who they choose to host their communication without limiting who they can reach.
- The ability to converse securely and privately is a basic human right.
- Communication should be available to everyone as a free and open, unencumbered, standard and global network.
The Matrix.org Foundation exists to act as a neutral custodian for Matrix and to nurture it as efficiently as possible as a single unfragmented standard, for the greater benefit of the whole ecosystem, not benefiting or privileging any single player or subset of players.