A guest post by Beloved: The Tech of Talking to Loved Ones

Let’s take a break from our irregularly scheduled programming to spend some time talking about technology. Specifically, let’s talk about calling your friends and family if you’re half a world away and what software you can use for this purpose. You see, the first thing people think of, when they love you and you move far way is: “Can we Skype?” And you’d like to say yes, of course. But you’re married to someone who has forgotten more about communication technology than your entire family together knows, so there is no quick answer. 

Here is Beloved, with part 1 of The Tech of Talking to Loved Ones

The purpose of this post is to explain how to communicate securely over the internet with voice and video for a non-technical audience. This post has been in the planning since well before the name Edward Snowden became famous, but it is even more poignant today. The original impetus that set me down to write was requests from family members and friends who were hoping to talk to SmittenImmigrant and me over Skype after we moved to the Unites States. Now I am someone who has been involved with VoIP(Voice over Internet Protocol) since 1999 and I’m not going to use Skype. I remember when Skype came out and I remember disliking them for not choosing an open protocol like SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) for their communications. The fact that we now know that Microsoft spies on Skype IMs just strengthened my resolve to find an alternative. [Note from Smitten Immigrant: there may or may not have been veiled threats from Beloved’s father-in-law  as well].

You , reader, may have a variety of reasons for wanting to communicate securely over the internet. Maybe you’re worried about the NSA or maybe you don’t like your personal information being used for marketing. For me, as a life long initiate in the geek faring religion of openness, I simply do not want to use a closed proprietary technology when an open alternative exists. As a bonus, I also like the idea of the NSA having to store every VoIP call I make (which they do, since it’s encrypted and they save encrypted data). I want to make their job more difficult, so I promote encryption at every opportunity.

Choosing VoIP Software

I’m going to leave out much of the technical mumbo-jumbo in this article since I don’t want to bore you. But I do want to mention why I chose Jitsi as my VoIP client. There are dozens of VoIP clients that support SIP these days. So why did I choose Jitsi?

I started by listing my requirements.

– The software had to be easy to use. Most of the people who would be calling us are not geeks like me or even power users like SmittenImmigrant.

– The software had to be open. I wanted code that had been peer reviewed and that anyone could look at. Anything short of that in encryption software is essentially useless.

– The software also had to be free as in beer and free as in freedom. I didn’t want to pay for it and I wanted changes made to it contributed back to public domain.

– The software had to run on multiple platforms. I use Apple computers as well as Linux, but most of the people who want to talk with us use Microsoft Windows.

– The software had to be actively maintained and could not be abandonware. A large problem with open source projects is that, since the developers are all volunteers, projects have a tendency to languish unfinished or broken for extended periods. I wanted software that was being updated regularly by a core group of people.

– The software had to support SIP and ZRTP for encryption. I’m going to leave out the reasons why I believe SIP has a much better future for internet based VoIP calls compared to H.323 because I promised no technical mumbo-jumbo. So you’ll just have to trust me. I will get into ZRTP in the next section.

Jitsi meets all the above requirements and then some. It’s also rather old (Jitsi started in 2003) which in the world of software is almost always a good thing. New software is always buggier than old software.

An extremely short introduction to Encryption

Encryption is the stuff of hidden messages. It’s been around longer than Christianity and we have records of the Romans and Chinese using to secret codes to communicate. Since the development of digital computers encryption has increasingly become about creating ever more difficult math problems for computers to solve. Luckily we don’t have to care about math or solve and math problems. That’s all been figured out for us by people much smarter than we are. We only need to know one acronym and understand what it does for us. This acronym is ZRTP (Zimmerman Real-Time Transport Protocol).

ZRTP is a key agreement protocol developed and championed by Phil Zimmerman (an excellent example of a super smart human who figures out stuff so we don’t have to) to be used with real time streaming applications, such as VoIP calls. A key agreement protocol allows the calling parties to exchange encryption keys in a secure manner so that no one other than the communicating parties can listen to the conversation. Encryption keys are what the software uses to encrypt and decrypt our call data. Without the key you cannot open the lock, so to speak, and ZRTP is responsible for making sure that only the people who are calling each other have the key. With regards to Jitsi it means that Jitsi running on computer A will generate a key and use ZRTP to exchange that key with computer B which also generated its own key. Once computer A and B have each other’s keys the conversation can begin securely and no one but computer A and computer B can listen to the conversation.

To be continued…

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2 Responses to “A guest post by Beloved: The Tech of Talking to Loved Ones”


  1. 1 Yuriy September 11, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    Thank you for posting this! After finding Jitsi on Prism-Break website, I thought to research it further. Your article is great in this regard!


  1. 1 Guest Post by Beloved: The Tech of Talking to Loved Ones (II) | The Smitten Immigrant Trackback on September 17, 2013 at 7:33 pm

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