Through the looking glass: We’ve arguably never been closer to a modern-day version of the plot portrayed in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists had long suspected the government’s involvement in mass surveillance but it wasn’t until mid-2013 that former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden validated those fears.

As our lives become increasingly digital, it’s not just the government that we have to worry about. Hackers are looking to exploit our private data for financial gain. Advertisers also have a vested interest in building profiles based on our personal data. Others are simply mean-spirited by nature and like to cause harm just for the thrill of it. Fortunately, we aren’t unarmed in our fight for privacy.

Strong encryption is arguably our best defense against prying eyes. In basic terms, encryption involves the use of an algorithm to scramble – or encrypt – data before it is sent over a line of communication like the Internet. The recipient uses a special key to decrypt – or unscramble – the message. Anyone that manages to intercept the message will only see a jumbled mess.

One of the leading encryption standards currently in use is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). Introduced nearly two decades ago, this symmetric-key algorithm features a block size of 128 bits and key lengths of 128 bits, 192 bits or 256 bits. It's the latter that serves as the local storage foundation for a new ecosystem from a group of networking enthusiasts who call themselves the 1984 Group.

Utopia, by definition, means a place or state in which everything is perfect. The proliferation of digital networks – namely, the Internet – brought humanity one step closer to this state of bliss by providing us with a newfound freedom in the ability to share information with anyone in an instant. This unprecedented independence created an illusion of anonymity and privacy that quite frankly doesn’t really exist.

The 1984 Group’s decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) platform, also named Utopia, aims to add a much-needed layer of privacy to online communication which could obliterate censorship and keep prying eyes at bay.

Utopia is now available for Windows, macOS and Linux (mobile apps are coming in 2020), offering a mesh of multiple application functionality into a single package. At its core, Utopia allows for instant encrypted text, voice and e-mail communication that is protected by Curve25519 elliptic curve cryptography. According to the company, communications can’t be intercepted and read by a third party and your physical location and IP address cannot be revealed.

As a decentralized platform, all account data is stored locally on your device in an encrypted file. While a boon for security, this also means that if you forget or misplace your password, there’s no way to recover your account so keep that in mind. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The first thing you’ll likely notice about Utopia is its utilitarian UI. It has a retro feel with lots of widgets to digest – a flashy interface clearly wasn’t a priority for the design team during the six years they spent developing the program. Everything is front and center and frankly, that’s hard to get around when you cram in as much functionality as Utopia affords. There is a dark theme, however, for those looking to add a bit of flair.

Upon opening Utopia for the first time, you’ll be dropped into the dashboard. Here, you can access your encrypted e-mail – called uMail – and manage chat contacts through an interface that screams AOL Instant Messenger. An alternative to classic e-mail, uMail lets you send “e-mail” to people in your contact list. An array of network status indicators line the bottom of the UI. From the channels tab, you can browse a list of public chat channels à la old-school IRC.

The influences of yesteryear don’t end there as there’s also a games section where you can play chess over the Internet. It’s a neat throwback for anyone with fond memories of Yahoo! Games, but it seems like an odd inclusion in a privacy-focused app.

As for some of Utopia’s more modern elements, there is a built-in cryptocurrency and wallet system that allow you to transfer funds and make purchases over the network. Users can generate – or mine – their own Cryptons (CRP) by allowing Utopia to utilize their computing resources to increase the number of network routing connections and provide additional storage. In exchange, users are rewarded with virtual currency every 15 minutes.

According to the 1984 Group, mining has almost no effect on your CPU or HDD load and does not increase power consumption.

Utopia worked largely as advertised during our time with the platform when we tried various features including setting up an account, getting online, transferring photos and sending email. uMail worked as advertised although notably, you can only send messages to people in your address book and those folks must be approved friends.

Utopia launched only weeks ago and yet updates seem to be coming down the pipeline at a regular clip. We received two new app updates in the past two days, so that’s promising. Some issues we experienced with the macOS client were also resolved in one of the updates.

Another key component of the Utopia platform is the Idyll browser. Think of it as an alternative to Tor – a self-contained network that exists outside of the “surface web.” With it, you can anonymously visit any site or resource on the Utopia network – a detail that can’t be glossed over.

By design, this means that you can’t access any of the roughly two billion “traditional” websites estimated to be in existence. Rather, you’re limited to only the sites that are hosted on the Utopia network which, considering the fact that it is barely out of beta, isn’t very many. This is both a strength and a limitation, especially early on.

Just like with Tor, tracking down any site to visit proved tricky and without a search engine in place (in the works), the only way we were able to find any content was by hitting up chat channels and scanning for links.

Registering to host a website on the Utopia network is an easy enough process, so long as you have enough CRP to pay the registration fee. These fees, as well as those charged when transferring Cryptons between users, are used to help maintain and grow the Utopia ecosystem.

The 1984 Group has created an intriguing, well-intentioned product in Utopia but without a crystal ball, it’s too early to predict where users will take it in the months and years to come. Utopia is free to use and that’s certainly a big plus.

As it stands today, Utopia affords a rare opportunity to get in on the ground level of something that has the potential to be game-changing. There are no guarantees, of course, but how often do you get the chance to get involved in something – anything – at such an early stage?

Those with a passion for security, privacy or free speech, will be attracted to Utopia for obvious reasons. Participation will be instrumental to the platform's success, so if this sounds exciting or intriguing, give it a whirl.

This is a sponsored post brought to you in collaboration with Utopia.