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BitTorrent experiments with secure chat

Does the solution to secure instant messaging from prying eyes lie in how torrents work? BitTorrent thinks it might, and is testing out a server-free messaging system.

BitTorrent Chat's sign-up page.

The aftermath of the NSA spying revelations has people and companies scrambling for ways to create more secure communications, which has led BitTorrent to build a instant-message chat client that follows the torrenting principle of decentralized data transfer.

The first release of BitTorrent Chat is a private alpha, meaning you have to go to the BitTorrent Chat sign-up page to get an invite, which will take you to a download.

The client uses the concept of decentralized technology that's at the heart of torrents to run instant messages between people, but BitTorrent was cagey about confirming details about the program. There's no central server that stores communications, although it apparently works "similar to BitTorrent Sync, but adapted for real-time communications," said BitTorrent's communications chief Christian Averill.

Eventually, the service is expected to work with other instant-messaging accounts and be interoperable with SIP standards, but for now it requires a BitTorrent account. BitTorrent has not yet confirmed which of the three major desktop platforms of Windows, Mac, or Linux that the alpha will be available on. Mobile apps are also planned for BitTorrent Chat.

Averill was unable to provide details on how the service logs your chats, so it's not clear at this time whether message logs are stored locally, or even available as an option. BitTorrent Chat, he said, came about during one of the company's internal hackathons, which has led to BitTorrent Labs projects such as Sync.

It may have been a routine hackathon that led to BitTorrent Chat, but if it works as advertised, it would appear to be perfectly poised to take advantage of the surprising number of NSA spying revelations that have been making headlines since Edward Snowden first leaked documents to the press earlier this year. Instant-message chat logs and traffic are governed by the same legal standards as e-mail and mobile-phone text messages, so it's likely that the government has been asking for IM logs along with e-mail and other online communication services offered by companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft at the center of the controversy.

When asked about what BitTorrent's response would be to potential requests from government agencies like the National Security Agency for a BitTorrent Chat back door, he said, "We're not familiar with specifics of NSA programs, so it's not something we can really comment on."

"We are focused on creating something durable that does not rely on the cloud, that respects user privacy and that has real consumer benefits," he said.

Updated 1:15 p.m. PDT with more background on the NSA spying revelations.

Editor's note: Using P2P and file-sharing software to distribute copyrighted material without authorization is illegal in the United States and many other countries. CBS Interactive does not encourage or condone the illegal duplication or distribution of copyrighted content.