FOSDEM 2019 and DeltaChat

During the last month we attended two events: FOSDEM, Europe’s premier free software event, and a meetup with the folks behind DeltaChat. At both events we met great people, had interesting conversations, and talked through potential future collaboration with Thunderbird. This post details some of our conversations and insights gather from those events.

FOSDEM 2019

Magnus (Thunderbird Technical Manager), Kai (Thunderbird Security Engineer), and I (Ryan, Community Manager) arrived in Brussels for Europe’s premier free software event (free as in freedom, not beer): FOSDEM. I was excited to meet many of our contributors in-person who I’d only met online. It’s exhilarating to be looking someone in the eye and having a truly human interaction around something that you’re passionate about – this is what makes FOSDEM a blast.

There are too many conversations that we had to detail in their entirety in this blog post, but below are some highlights.

Chat over IMAP/Email

One thing we discussed at FOSDEM was Chat over IMAP with the people from Open-Xchange. Robert even gave a talk called “Break the Messaging Silos with COI”. They made a compelling case as to why email is a great medium for chat, and the idea of using a chat that lets you select the provider that stores your data – genius! We followed on FOSDEM with a meetup with the DeltaChat folks in Freiburg, Germany where we discussed encryption and Chat over Email.

Encryption, Encryption, Encryption

We discussed encryption a lot, primarily because we have been thinking about it a lot as a project. With the rising awareness of users about privacy concerns in tech, services like Protonmail getting a lot of attention, and in acknowledgement that many Thunderbird users rely on encrypted Email for their security – it was important that we use this opportunity to talk with our sister projects, contributors, and users about how we can do better.

Sequoia-PGP

We were very grateful that the Sequoia-PGP team took the time to sit down with us and listen to our ideas and concerns surrounding improving encrypted Email support in Thunderbird. Sequoia-PGP is an OpenPGP library, written in Rust that appears to be pretty solid. There is a potential barrier to incorporating their work into Thunderbird, in license compatibility (we use MPL and they use GPL). But we discussed a wide range of topics and have continued talking through what is possible following the event, it is my hope that we will find some way to collaborate going forward.

One thing that stood out to me about the Sequoia team was their true interest in seeing Thunderbird be the best that it can be, and they seemed to genuinely want to help us. I’m grateful to them for the time that they spent and look forward to getting another opportunity to sit with them and chat.

pEp

Following our discussion with the Sequoia team, we spoke to Volker of the pEp Foundation. Over dinner we discussed Volker’s vision of privacy by default and lowering the barrier of using encryption for all communication. We had spoken to Volker in the past, but it was great to sit around a table, enjoy a meal, and talk about the ways in which we could collaborate. pEp’s approach centers around key management and improved user experience to make encryption more understandable and easier to manage for all users (this is a simplified explanation, see pEp’s website for more information). I very much appreciated Volker taking the time to walk us through their approach, and sharing ideas as to how Thunderbird might move forward. Volker’s passion is infectious and I was happy to get to spend time with him discussing the pEp project.

EteSync

People close to me know that I have a strong desire to see encrypted calendar and contact sync become a standard (I’ve even grabbed the domains cryptdav.com and cryptdav.org). So when I heard that Tom of EteSync was at FOSDEM, I emailed him to set up a time to talk. EteSync is secure, end-to-end encrypted and privacy respecting sync for your contacts, calendars and tasks. That hit the mark!

In our conversation we discussed potential ways to work together, and I encouraged him to try and make this into a standard. He was quite interested and we talked through who we should pull into the conversation to move this forward. I’m happy to say that we’ve managed to get Thunderbird Council Chairman and Lightning Calendar author Philipp Kewisch in on the conversation – so I hope to see us move this along. I’m so glad that Tom created an implementation that will help people maintain their privacy online. We so often focus on securing our communication, but what about the data that is produced from those conversations? He’s doing important work and I’m glad that I was able to find ways to support his vision. Tom also gave a talk at FOSDEM this year, called “Challenges With Building End-to-End Encrypted Applications – Learnings From Etesync”.

Autocrypt on the Train

During FOSDEM we attended a talk about Autocrypt by Vincent Breitmoser. As we headed to the city Freiburg, for our meetup with the people behind DeltaChat, we realized Vincent was on our train and managed to sit with him on the ride over. Vincent was going to the same meetup that we were so it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was great to get an opportunity to sit down with him and discuss how the Autocrypt project was doing and the state of email encryption, in general.

Vincent reiterated Autocrypt’s focus on raising the floor on encryption, getting as many people using encryption keys as possible and handling some of the complexity around the exchange of keys. We had concerns around the potential for man-in-the-middle attacks when using Autocrypt and Vincent was upfront about that and we had a useful discussion about balancing the risks and ease of use of email security. Vincent’s sincerity and humble nature made the conversation an enjoyable one, and I came away having made a new friend. Vincent is a good guy, and following our meetup in Freiburg we have discussed other ways in which we could collaborate.

Other FOSDEM Conversations

Of course, I will inevitably leave out someone in recounting who we talked to as FOSDEM. I had many conversations with old friends, met new people, and shared ideas. I got to meet Elio Qoshi of Ura Design face-to-face for the first time, which was really awesome (they did a style guide and usability study for Thunderbird, and have contributed in a number of other ways). I spoke to the creators of Mailfence, a privacy-focused email provider.

I attended a lot of talks and had my head filled with new perspectives, had preconceived notions challenged, and learned a lot. I hope that we’ll get to return next year and share some of the work that we’re doing now!

DeltaChat in Freiburg

A while before finishing our FOSDEM planning, we were invited by Holger Krekel to come to Freiburg, Germany following FOSDEM and learn more about Chat over Email (as their group calls it), and their implementation – DeltaChat. They use Autocrypt in DeltaChat, so there were conversations about that as well. Patrick Brunschwig, the author of the  Enigmail add-on was also present, and had interesting insights to add to the encryption conversation.

Hanging at a flat in Freiburg we spent two days talking through Chat over Email support in Thunderbird, how we might improve encryption in Thunderbird core, and thought through how Thunderbird can enhance its user experience around chat and encryption. Friedel, the author of rpgp, a rust implementation of OpenPGP, showed up at the event and shared his insights – which we appreciated.

I also got an opportunity to talk with the core maintainer of DeltaChat, Björn Petersen, about the state of chat generally. He started DeltaChat in order to offer an alternative to these chat silos, with a focus on an experience that would be on par with the likes of Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp.

Following more general conversations, I spoke with Björn, Janka, and Xenia about the chat experience in DeltaChat. We discussed what a Chat over Email implementation in Thunderbird might look like, and more broadly talked through other potential UX improvements in the app. Xenia described the process their team went through when polling DeltaChat users about potential improvements and what insights they gained in doing that. We chatted about how what they have learned might apply to Thunderbird and it was very enlightening.

At one point Holger took us to Freiburg’s Chaos Computer Club, and there we got to hang out and talk about a wide range of topics – mostly centered around open source software and privacy. I thought it was fascinating and I got to learn about new projects that are up and coming. I hope to be able to collaborate with some of them to improve Thunderbird. In the end I was grateful that Holger and the rest of the DeltaChat contributors encouraged us to join them for their meetup, and opened up their space for us so that we could spend time with them and learn from them.

Thanks for reading this post! I know it was long, but I hope you found it interesting and learned something from it.