What is Intra? Alphabet unveils free Android encryption app

4 Oct 2018

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One of Alphabet’s technology incubators, Jigsaw, has released an app designed to encrypt internet connections.

Jigsaw is one of Google’s technology incubators, operating as a subsidiary under the broad umbrella of Alphabet. The team at Jigsaw is tasked with tackling global security challenges, from government censorship to online radicalisation.

Tales of interference with the internet by oppressive regimes around the globe are common. The incubator’s new app, Intra, is designed to protect Android users against domain name system (DNS) manipulation. DNS connections bring users from the addresses they type in the search bar to the intended destination. Think of them as a contact list for the entire internet.

What is DNS poisoning?

DNS manipulation or DNS poisoning is a common form of online censorship used by some internet service providers and governments to block access to social media platforms, news sources, forbidden software and information that could lead to dissent.

Intra protects against DNS manipulation by keeping DNS traffic hidden from third parties with state-level surveillance capabilities. It uses ‘DNS over HTTPS’ (DoH) technology, which works by sending DNS requests and receiving DNS responses via connections encrypted by HTTPS.

Google and many other companies have been instrumental in pushing for more secure browsing by prioritising HTTPS connections. According to ZDNet, DoH is not quite enough to safeguard your web traffic entirely, as the actual remote services connection also needs to take place via HTTPS.

Usually, DNS connections are unencrypted, leaving people vulnerable to malware and political meddling. Countries such as Iran and China often manipulate queries in this way. DNS poisoning is often paired with IP blocking, which allows authoritarian regimes to suppress information it deems objectionable.

Helping Android users browse freely

Intra encrypts DNS so users can browse on Android, no matter the geographical location. “Intra is dead-simple to use,” the Jigsaw team wrote. “Just download the app and turn it on. That’s it. If you want to customise your connection, you can change the DNS provider you use.”

DNS manipulation is such a big problem that Android Pie, the latest version of the OS, comes with DNS protection as a default feature. It uses the ‘DNS over TLS’ (transport layer security) encryption protocol, while the Intra app uses DoH.

Intra points to Google’s own DNS servers by default, but users who prefer others such as Cloudflare can change this in the app’s settings. The app also allows users of older Android handsets to encrypt connections from the local device to a remote DoH-capable DNS server. It works on Android 4.0 and later, which means those who may not be able to spring for an upgrade can still be protected.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects