Encrypting conversations with Jitsi

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© Mipan, Fotolia

© Mipan, Fotolia


Jitsi is a versatile chat program. The Java program can handle all popular instant messaging protocols and even video IP telephony.

The Jitsi program [1], previously known as SIP Communicator, is a real jack-of-all-trades. As an instant messenger, it uses the XMPP protocols (Jabber, Google Talk, and Facebook Chat), ICQ, AIM, .NET Messenger Service, Yahoo! Messenger, and SIP. It also uses SIP and the Jingle XMPP extension for audio and video communications and desktop sharing.

The stable version 1.0 is currently on the Jitsi servers for downloading. With a Java runtime environment (JRE) as a prerequisite, Linux, Mac, and Windows users can chat equally comfortably with the program. Ubuntu users can install the jitsi_1.0-latest package for 32-bit and 64-bit architectures.

If the Jitsi window doesn't show up under Kubuntu 12.10, you may have to switch the Java version (see the "Jitsi and Java" box). After clicking the link to the .deb file in the browser, a window opens in Ubuntu that proposes to load the package and all its dependencies onto your hard disk. The installation then creates a new repository (in the source named in the /etc/apt/sources.list.d/jitsi.list file) so that you can get the usual updates, upgrades, and patches for Jitsi.

Jitsi and Java

Apparently, Jitsi doesn't get along very well with the new Java version OpenJDK 7, at least in Kubuntu 12.10. After starting the software from the terminal, the launch window doesn't show up. Use the following command to check which Java version you have:

java -version

If it's OpenJDK 7, uninstall it with:

sudo apt-get remove --purge openjdk-7-jre

Then install the openjdk-6-jdk package (if not already there), which is a Java version Jitsi can work with.

At first startup (e.g., via Dash and the entry jit ), a dialog opens next to the main window with the buddy list. This dialog has all the important account setups you will need (Figure 1). You can configure new additions at any time with File | New account . The wizard supports registering new accounts for some selected suppliers. Jitsi doesn't exit when you close the program window; it just hides behind an indicator icon. You need to use File | Exit or right-click the exit icon at the top to exit the program.

Figure 1: A wizard helps configure Jitsi and sets up access in one fell swoop. It also supports the registration process for some of the accounts.

By default, most parameters are configured so that Jitsi does exactly what it should do. If you want to adjust the microphone or camera, set up notifications, or use some of the more advanced network options, you can use Tools | Options .

Instant Chat

Jitsi's instant messenger (IM) presentation is like other IMs: One window shows the so-called buddy list with your contacts, while a second one shows your conversations with a number of tabs. To start a conversation, click a contact. Under the contact name, you'll find icons identifying the communication mechanism of the remote communication. Next to a text balloon for a text chat, you might see a phone, camera, and two small desktops for sharing your work area.

For a text chat simply start typing and press Enter. The little icons at the top are for inviting group chats, sending files, showing the status, and adding smileys (Figure 2). The flag icon is used for spell-checking. The open lock icon is for encryption with Off-the-Record Messaging (OTR), which needs to be active on both ends. Also, each communicator should subsequently use the Secure chat menu to authenticate. Jitsi encrypts audio and video telephony right out of the box (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The little padlock at the bottom shows that the audio or video calls are encrypted (here an OS X client talking to an Ubuntu system).
Figure 2: Jitsi displays older conversation histories. Encrypted text is contained inside "<FONT></FONT>" tags.

The video chat window provides icons at the bottom with which you can invite others to the chat, change to full-screen mode, turn the camera on and off, and enable desktop sharing. Full-screen mode works under Unity only if you hide the launcher on the left edge. If you activate desktop sharing, you can have the remote party control your desktop when you select the Enable sharing check box.

At the bottom edge of the window are icons that let you record conversations. By default, Jitsi saves recordings in MP3 format in the standard download directory. You can change these in the program settings on the Advanced tab. Incidentally, it also provides uncompressed audio formats. Careful, though, if you save a long phone call as a WAV file, you're likely to shrink your disk space significantly.

Missed Connection

Despite fiber optic connections, our testers were often dissatisfied with the quality. Especially with SIP telephony, artifacts were showing up in videos, a webcam dropped out from time to time, or Jitsi crashed completely.

Things worked somewhat better and more fluidly with Google Talk. With both Gmail accounts communicating, the audio and video quality was convincingly better and even the desktop sharing worked well cross-platform (OS  X and Ubuntu). File transfers, however, didn't have a chance. Regardless of which protocol the testers used, small text files and images got across, but things came to a standstill at about one megabyte.

Most convincing of all were Jitsi's easy operation and unencumbered encryption. If you value privacy and want to text or call Windows or OS  X users, you should certainly give Jitsi a chance.You'll find the client to be a free and, more importantly, secure alternative to Skype and other programs that supports all the usual protocols.


  1. Jitsi: https://jitsi.org

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