The web is constantly developing. As people come up with new ideas on how to use the web in innovative ways, new technologies have to be created to enable these new ideas to take off. One such technology that has changed the landscape of the web is WebRTC.
WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) is a technology used by many popular online apps including Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts and Discord. It allows the direct transfer of high-definition video and audio from one user to another, enabling features such as calls and video conferences. In this article, we will look at how WebRTC works, why it is so useful, and what risks it can pose.
Why does WebRTC exist?
When the internet was first developed in the early ’90s, it was designed using protocols that facilitate the transfer of data between a user and a server. When you visit a website, HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) allows your actions to be communicated to that website, and for the website’s answer to be communicated back to your browser.
This user-to-server system is still used by most of the web. When you shop online, use social media or read the news, the communication happens entirely between your browser and the website you visit. However, as the web has grown increasingly interactive, a need for other types of communication has become apparent.
When you send someone a message on social media, the message first goes from your browser to the server, and then from the server to the other user’s browser. This is necessary due to the way the web is built on user-to-server communication. While this function is perfectly fine for written messages, if you attempt video calls or other ‘real-time’ communication in this manner, you encounter a major problem.
In user-server-user communication, a delay is inevitably introduced as all data has to pass through the server in the middle. A delay of a couple of seconds makes no difference with written messages, but can completely ruin a call or video conference. In order for a call to work in real-time and with no delay, communication has to take place directly between the users’ devices without stopping by a server. That’s where WebRTC comes in.
How WebRTC allows peer-to-peer connectivity on the web
While some forms of peer-to-peer, or user-to-user, communication existed on the web prior to WebRTC thanks to third-party plugins, these were not convenient to use. They required installation on user’s devices – something that users were hesitant to do – and often had major performance and security risks.
In 2010, Google decided to start developing a solution to this problem that would be built directly into browsers, eliminating the need for users to install plugins. This project, named WebRTC, works by creating a peer-to-peer ‘tunnel’ between users’ devices. This tunnel allows high-definition audio, video and other data to be sent without any delay.
WebRTC is now built-in to all major browsers and mobile operating systems, including iOS and Android, allowing many types of interactive apps to function without users having to install plugins. While this is convenient for users, it has also created some risks to those concerned about online privacy.
What are the risks of using WebRTC?
WebRTC itself is a security tool built on open-source code and is regularly updated to remove known vulnerabilities. However, due to the nature of the connection, it creates between users’ devices, it poses a risk to anyone using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to secure their online privacy.
A VPN creates a secure, encrypted tunnel between your device and the VPN provider’s servers. All your web traffic goes through this tunnel, and so your online activity is disguised behind the VPN’s servers. Your real IP (Internet Protocol) address and identity are never exposed.
A WebRTC connection, however, can sometimes bypass this security. As WebRTC connections are created directly between your device and other users’ devices, your data will not go through the secure, encrypted tunnel created by your VPN, and your IP address can end up being revealed.
If you are using a VPN to protect your online privacy, it is essential that you ensure WebRTC is not compromising this. You can use an online WebRTC leak test to find out if you are vulnerable, and learn how to protect yourself from a WebRTC leak. If you are not using a VPN, however, WebRTC is no more of a danger to your online privacy than any other app or website.
The future of the Web
WebRTC has quickly become one of the most important building blocks of the ever-developing web. As a tool to allow video conferences and screen-sharing among other uses it is invaluable, however, it is always important to keep in mind that with new technologies there are always new risks. So enjoy all the great apps that WebRTC allows – but if you are using a VPN, keep in mind that your privacy could be compromised.