Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Go ahead and talk to strangers

Here's one of those interesting viral-y things you find on the web that's probably not the Next Big Thing, but still intriguing: Someone or something called Omegle. Appropriately enough, they're so new even Wikipedia doesn't seem to have heard of them. They have an omega in their logo, so it's probably either "oh MAY gul" or "oh MEE gul", depending on the side of the pond [It's oh-meg-ul, according to the web site].

[Amazing what you can come up with via the most rudimentary checking: According to the Omegle blog, Omegle is a Python application written by an 18-year-old guy from Brattleboro, Vermont named Leif K-Brooks. It went live on March 25th 2009 and has been growing steadily. Of course, that could just be a cover story (see next post), but I doubt it.]

What have they done? They've launched a site that's brilliant in its simplicity and doesn't seem to have been done in quite this form before: it lets you talk to strangers.

All you do is start a chat. The site picks a random other person starting a chat and pairs you up. You show up in the transcript as "You". The other person shows up as "Stranger". Disconnect and try again, and once again "You" are talking to "Stranger". Most likely it's a different Stranger, but who knows? Presumably it's the same "You."

For that matter, if you did end up talking to the same person twice, how would you know? You could give out some identifying information, or sneakily glean some from the other party, but that would sort of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?

From a brief trial, it would appear that the level of conversation varies from the occasional spambot flogging a web site, to juvenile antics, to the kind of civil conversation one might strike up while waiting in line for something.

It's about as anonymous as you can get [but see note below]. In some anonymous setups, a particular party goes by a consistent handle. You may not know who they are, but you might know that last week they said such-and-such and that so-and-so says they're into modern jazz. Omegle, by contrast, has the memory of a goldfish (well, actually, less memory than a goldfish). Every conversation uses the same two handles, which is to say there are no handles at all.

It's not clear how strong the actual anonymity guarantee is. The easy way to do this, just accept direct connections and hook them up, is not secure. If you say "the stolen diamonds are hidden under the bridge on Fourth Street," Omegle might well know which IP sent the message. On the other hand it might be using some stronger anonymizer, in which case it wouldn't know. Who knows?

What is pretty clear is that Omegle is not a practical system for most kinds of cloak-and-dagger mischief. If agent 86 wants to contact agent 99, Omegle won't help. If agent 86 wants to tell some random person where the stolen diamonds are, that's a different story -- but it's hard to see how it's a useful one.

Omegle won't connect you to a particular web site, or email address, or chat handle, even if it's random and anonymous. It will just put you in a virtual room with a stranger. Some stranger. Any stranger. As such, it seems like mostly harmless fun, if you like that sort of thing.

[I wasn't able to confirm this on Wikipedia or Omegle's own site, but my understanding is that Omegle sets up a point-to-point connection between the two participants.  This allows each participant to see the other's IP address using standard networking tools, making it not very anonymous at all --D.H. Jan 2016]

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