There are those that like Katherine Fullerton who believe “all violations of essential privacy are brutalizing”.
Places is a privacy-minded startup that’s building a secure Dropbox-style platform for file sharing and messaging — but one that has end-to-end, client-side encryption built in. Launched in early alpha, its welcoming sign-ups for a forthcoming beta at Joinplaces.com. (The alpha is also open to Windows and Mac OS users.)
While it is note-worthy that it is possible to add a third party service to your Dropbox account to gain extra amount of security, it must be known that Dropbox does not do encryption locally, so can’t offer end-to-end encryption.
Given that one requires some energy to take this extra step, most persons would not bother.
Places, by contrast, begins from a secure base, with PGP end-to-end encryption, using RSA 2048 and AES 256.
Another twist is it’s also seeking to disrupt the server-client architecture of existing sharing platforms by enabling users to host their own content. With Places, the user’s content can be stored and served from their own Mac, PC or Linux machine.
Places does have centralized servers, too, to serve encrypted content when a user’s own machine is off or otherwise unreachable. But it does not hold the encryption keys so can’t access that content. The Places software also synchronizes content across Places’ desktop and mobile apps (currently it has a standalone iOS app).
Co-founder Vigile Hoareau says “The idea for us is that it’s not only an app. It’s a server that runs on your client side,” demoing the software at TechCrunch Disrupt SF’s startup alley last week. “Today if you have important files to share and don’t use PGP this is better than PGP if you have multiple people and multiple files.”
Important files, or indeed sensitive files, to reference a topical issue. Aka the nude celebrity photos stolen from Apple’s iCloud cloud storage facility and recently leaked online.
“We are the content provider but we don’t own the content we provide.”
“If you have to be naked you should be on Places. Because everything will be encrypted. If someone take the file on the cloud side this file will be encrypted. Nobody has the keys. Only the [users] have the keys,” adds Hoareau. What a kingly privacy!
He describes Places as a “share everything application” — noting that the team also has VoIP working in the lab, to be added as a future update. It will also be adding a Dropbox-style cloud system interaction in the near term, so users can interact directly with the file system. That feature is due “within weeks”. Existing features are file-sharing and an IM style messaging interface.
The thread that will link every feature offered on Places is robust privacy. The philosophy underpinning the business is that web users should be able to share content with specific people without being forced to give strangers access to that content.
“It’s not fair to say give me your content if you want to share,” says Hoareau. “The challenge is, as Snowden said, to ‘implement end-to-end encryption in a simple, cheap, effective way that is invisible to users’. This is Places. End to end encryption. Making it cheap and easy.
“If you can send an email, you can use it. You just create your Place… you drag and drop people, you drag and drop content. That’s it. Everything’s so easy. Even if it wasn’t private it would be a good way to interact on projects.”
Hoareau argues that another structural shift is coming — akin to the shift from web 1.0 to web 2.0 — a shift that responds to the fact web users are now content producers yet aren’t in control of the very same content they produce.
That’s the current wrong that Places seeks to right.
“Intimacy is the concept that is missing today on the web, and it’s in the heart of everyone. It’s all about that. Taking control of the data,” he says. “If you want to share publicly Facebook is good for you but if you want to share your wedding picture, all the wedding pictures, all the Saturday night party pictures, it’s nothing you have to be ashamed of, you drank with your friends, so this is all good. But how to share that? You don’t today. If you’re not crazy you don’t, you just don’t. And we thought, ok what do we do?”
“The whole industry has been organized technically and economically on the client-server paradigm. You are the client and you ask for something. But we thought all of the devices we have today are stronger than the beginning of the Internet… You can be the provider of your services,” he adds.
As you’d expect, Places intends to open source its software to allow outside developers to sniff around the code to check they are living up to their privacy promises. Outsiders will also be invited to contribute code of their own to move the project along.
“This is all about web 2.0. We[b users] are content providers. So now we understand we are the content provider but we don’t own the content we provide. So what will be the next move? … We are the next move. This is a disruption. Why? Because the user becomes the hardware provider, the software provider and the content provider,” he says. “It’s not ‘give me your content and I give you the service’. This is a big change.”
Thus far the Places co-founders — who have backgrounds in networks, security, distributed systems, psychology, AI, data mining and text mining — have been bootstrapping Places. The startup was founded in the Réunion Island, a French territory in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
“It’s a good place to think, not to do business,” adds Hoareau. “What we need today is support. We think we are on a good path… People can support the project on Twitter, Facebook, join us for the iPhone app and every week they will release a new version of the software… We really need this energy today.”
It’s also appealing to the public for outside funding to continue building Places, and is planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo later this year. In terms of business model, there will obviously not be any adverts on Places since the whole point is to avoid invasive data-mining of personal information. Rather the startup’s monetization focus will be on offering Dropbox-style secure cloud storage, according to Hoareau.
PLACES is part of a growing online decentralization movement that was propelled seriously by last year’s Snowden revelations which pulled back the curtain on the extent of government dragnet online surveillance programs.
Places was actually founded just before Snowdengate but the startup’s timing is excellent, coinciding with a growing sense of unease and unfairness at the current structural organization of Internet content. With government agencies revealed to be capturing the digital communications of everyone — not just specific signals intelligence targets —privacy affects all web users.
Since Snowden’s big reveal strong drive has gathered behind a swathe of privacy focused startups, from consumer focused hardware and software such as the Blackphone, to others seeking to reconfigure the power structure of the existing server client model, like Places is. Other startups in this area include P2P Internet MaidSafe, and “personal cloud platform” Sandstorm.