How governments and spies text each other

When Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France, in 2017, his team immediately started to grapple with a problem of communication. Throughout his campaign, Macron and his team had relied on Telegram – a privacy-aware messaging app designed by Russian dissident Pavel Durov – but now a change was needed in the way the president communicated with his ministers and collaborators. Telegram did not use the strongest privacy standard of end-to-end encryption by default, and that posed a risk. More importantly, however unimpeachable Durov’s credentials were, the French government did not want its messages to be hosted on the servers of a Russian company – or an American company, for that matter, which also ruled out Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

The solution came from an open-source project that had built a new protocol for end-to-end encrypted communications. Its name was and, conveniently, its core team was based in London and Rennes, Brittany. “It’s a rare instance of the French and the English managing to work together,” says Matrix’s co-founder Matthew Hodgson. He and fellow co-founder Amandine Le Pape started working on the project in 2014, as employees of Israeli technology company Amdocs. They wanted to create a messaging system that was decentralised rather than run by one company, was secure by default, and able to potentially communicate with other chat platforms. “We’re probably the most successful attempt to build an open standard for this kind of communication,” Le Pape says.

Everyone can run the Matrix protocol on their own servers, and participate in conversations hosted on other servers if they so wish. In France’s case, the government designed a system centred on multiple separate servers for each ministry, Hodgson says, “and yet, everybody can still talk to everybody else.” The decentralised architecture – modelled after open-source software Git – reduces the repercussions of technical incidents, which remain confined to the specific affected servers, while ensuring that the conversation goes on. “There is never a single point of control or failure.” Matrix’s makeup has proved attractive for at least three more governments in addition to France, security services and military organisations – including the German army – and tech corporations such as Mozilla. (As of early 2021, Matrix was used by over 28 million accounts worldwide.)

For the Matrix Foundation, a non-profit counting Hodgson and Le Pape among its members which defines and guards the project’s principles and goals, dealing with high-profile customers is a spur to hold the project to impossibly high standards. “For a typical consumer messaging app, you might be trying to protect your users from malicious governments attacking them. Here, there’s scope for malicious governments attacking each other,” Hodgson says.

He believes that, thanks to its popularity with the upper echelons of political decision-making, Matrix will help make the case for end-to-end encryption, at a time when the technology has come under attack from politicians across Europe and in the UK. “It would be very hypocritical and slightly concerning if any government chose to not allow the same level of security [it uses for itself] for its citizens,” he says. Le Pape and Hodgson launched their own Matrix-powered app, Element, in 2017. By the end of 2021, they hope to roll out a feature that would enable users of the app to exchange peer-to-peer messages without relying on an internet connection, creating bluetooth-powered mesh networks. “It’ll be a completely new experience – much lighter and easier,” Le Pape says. “It’s brand new.” 

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