Move Over Skype. For a More Secure Chat, There’s OStel.

As Edward Snowden’s leaks have revealed, none of our digital devices are truly safe from prying eyes, including Skype. As of February 2011, the U.S. government has had the capacity to monitor Skype calls and in July of this year, several newspapers exposed the level of cooperation Skype has had with the government in monitoring calls; the NSA apparently tripled its level of monitoring since July of last year, nine months after Microsoft bought the application.

There is now a Skype alternative called OStel, or Open Secure Telephony, offered by the Guardian Project, an organization that creates secure, open-source communications software that often assists those living under censorship. The site offers a very simple set-up on its website, including a simple registration, download and test call.

A screenshot of the OStel mobile app (image:

A screenshot of the OStel mobile app (image:

Nathan Freitas, who works at the Guardian Project, explains that OStel is not an app, per say, but a secure voice and video communication service that works on desktops and mobile devices alike. “We run the servers, but we do not ship any end-user software, in this case,” wrote Freitas in an e-mail. “The best way to think of [OStel] is as like running an IMAP/POP email service, where the user can use Thunderbird, Mac Mail, Outlook, etc, except instead of email, OStel provides real-time communications.”

The Guardian Project created OStel two years ago but only launched it last year as an open beta on but its popularity has apparently grown recently.

Freitas told TechPresident, “In general, we have seen major growth in recent days of server load, which could both be more people calling or people calling longer. Most likely we have a few hundred calls a day, and probably [are] nearing 100,000 registered users (not necessarily all active).”

The Guardian Project also recently conducted an OStel summer training for 10-15 people, three of which were Chinese speakers who brought up the issue of WeChat, whose safety is under suspicion, particularly by Tibetan activists. TechPresident previously wrote about Tibetans getting arrested after speaking on WeChat or Chinese activists surprised to see officials with knowledge of what they thought were private WeChat discussions.

However, the Guardian Projectis not keeping exact statistics on who uses OStel or where users are from and so is unsure as who is using the tool.

“Our aim is to be the first Telco service that knows nothing about our customers, except for whether or not the service is working as expected, and they are happy,” explained Freitas. “Based on the CPU and bandwidth load on our servers, I can say that all is well!”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident’s WeGov section.