Zcash Foundation Funds App Mixing Private Messaging and Payments

Meet Cwtch, a zcash-fueled messaging app with more decentralization than Telegram or Signal.

AccessTimeIconDec 3, 2019 at 2:00 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 11:45 a.m. UTC
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The Canadian nonprofit Open Privacy is working on Cwtch, a zcash-fueled messaging app with more decentralization than Telegram or Signal.

“Cwtch is focused on building a decentralized infrastructure,” said Open Privacy founder Sarah Jamie Lewis. “It can’t be reliant on Visa or Venmo unless we can find a way to remove that metadata.”

The project is still in an early stage of messaging between roughly a dozen node and server operators. Now, thanks to a donation from the Zcash Foundation of roughly $40,000, the nonprofit will hire a designer and continue research on the payment aspects of the system.

“Think of it like a prepaid card,” Lewis said. “You would top off at some point using zcash or any other payment methods.”

Lewis said Cwtch (a Welsh word for hug pronounced something like “kutch”) was inspired by market research with sex workers and queer communities that experienced censorship and malicious surveillance. As such, Open Privacy is looking into multiple options, including bitcoin, diverse on-ramps and liquidity. 

“There are ways to minimize some of those issues and get around them,” she said in reference to bitcoin’s public ledger and lack of capacity for direct encrypted messages.

UX hurdles

It is unclear at this stage how Open Privacy will overcome the user experience challenges, however. Even the zcash option will rely on shielded transactions, which requires a node that very few people know how to operate. Part of this grant will go toward hiring a designer and conducting more research, Lewis said. 

“Server-side support is only half the battle, and the most critical aspect of this whole endeavour will be getting people who use Cwtch to a position where they can easily use zcash (and possibly other cryptocurrencies with similar properties) to pay for anonymous services, or even accept it themselves,” Open Privacy said in a press statement.

So far, some of the greatest needs appear to be personal ads, such as those Craigslist or Backpage used to offer, and dating app–like features. It would also need to be discreet, since Lewis said some people are subjected to “systematic or personal violence” if they are found by authorities to have apps like Grindr on their phones.

To address this, the app works almost like bitcoin in that everyone downloads a ledger of all the messages, some of which are public. The difference is, private keys and user identifiers can be used to unlock certain conversations, including private group chats and direct messages.

George Tankersley, the Zcash Foundation’s director of engineering, said he hopes to incorporate insights and feedback from Cwtch into the “Zebra” zcash implementation. 

“One of our goals … is to do more work with external users and even competitors of zcash and to allow that to drive our priorities going into 2020,” Tankersley said. 

Open Privacy, founded in 2018, is funded primarily through user donations of bitcoin, zcash and monero.


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