Given Sir Tim Berners-Lee's oft-stated worries about internet privacy you'd have to wonder whether he'd do things differently if he had his time over again. David Irvine, CEO of "the oldest startup in the world", MaidSafe, is sure that he would.
"If you taught a computer engineering graduate all about IP networks and computers then said 'here are a bunch of cables and routers now go away and design a network where we can all store data and communicate securely', the very last thing they'd do is design a server," he said. "The only reason we did it that way because disk drives were invented before the internet."
Irvine and his colleagues have spent the last 10 years looking at ways to eliminate the weak link - the server - from the equation. "It should be about securing the data, not the server," he said.
"The only way you can really do that is to create some form of network where humans can't interfere, and where a piece of data is never stored on a single machine. By definition that has to be an autonomous network."
The autonomous network they created - called SAFE - has just, after 10 years development, been released as a minimum viable product consisting of a launcher, a test application and an API. The firm promises that applications will follow over the coming months.
Irvine's interest in autonomous networking began with work on a pre-Bitcoin cryptocurrency in 2006 ("no-one could get their head around alternative currencies at that stage") and then broadened into thinking about how to create a properly secure, general purpose IP networking infrastructure. There are three elements to this, he said, the first being logical data security (i.e. encryption and obfuscation), the second physical security of data, and the third authentication.
"Physical security of private data doesn't exist at the moment. Can someone delete your data? Yes. Can they corrupt it? Yes. Can they prevent you from accessing it? Yes.
"Putting data on the internet is about as secure as putting your money in a RBS account," he quipped.
The physical security piece is managed by breaking up files as they are uploaded, encrypting the chunks and distributing them across the network, with no machine able to decrypt the data. That can only be done by a user with the right keys. At any one time at least four copies of a chunk will exist on SAFE so that if nodes go down there is a very low risk of data being lost. Meanwhile, data on the network is encrypted and obfuscated in such a way that even if the encryption were to be cracked (for example by a future quantum computer) it would not be straightforward to reconstitute the data, Irvine insisted.
The authentication element was the trickiest to solve: why would an autonomous network allow a human to log on and store data on it?
"There's no server to log into, no IP address, there's just this sort of mist."
This problem was cracked by allowing users to create a space on the network in which their cryptographic keys are stored. When the user's machine runs the MaidSafe code the network checks the keys in the machine's "vault" to identify the user and verify how much disk space that user has given to the network to store fragments of other people's files.
"The network will say, 'David has given us 10mb so we'll give him 10mb in return'. It's a quid pro quo," Irvine explained.
The network itself consists of individual computers and smart devices that contribute storage, computing power and bandwidth to form a world-wide autonomous system - a little like SETI at Home and other peer-to-peer resource-sharing networks. Irvine pointed out that the spare resources on the world's smartphones, tablets, Macs and PCs adds up to a resource that's "thousands of times larger than Amazon, Microsoft and Google combined."
SAFE will operate on a cryptocurrency called Safecoin. It is not based on a blockchain like Bitcoin. Instead "farmers" (a similar concept to Bitcoin's miners) earn Safecoin every time a chunk of encrypted data hosted randomly on their machine is retrieved. The more reliable a node proves itself the more Safecoin it will earn. Unreliable nodes that corrupt data are removed with the data immediately replicated across from another node. There will be no transaction fees for using the network.
COO Nick Lambert explained the strategy: "The SAFE Network is open source specifically so that developers and users have the freedom to use the platform, encouraging adoption and community expansion. MaidSafe, the company, will be active participant in the open source community and will generate revenue by maintaining the network, as well as in the future development its own applications."
The test application, a sort of pre-alpha release, enables users to try it out, bag some space, create a website (with a .safenet extension) or blog and upload some files. There is also an API so that developers can create their own apps. Eventually, Irvine said, pretty much anything that can be done on the internet will be possible on SAFE, with the added promise of vastly improved security and anonymity.
But what will Mrs May make of it? After all encryption and anonymity are not the authorities' favourite things. Irvine had an answer.
"A lot of governments might say, 'if this can protect our citizens or at least our own defence networks maybe it's something we should take seriously'. And in future when there's a massive data breach at a private company maybe shareholders will start demand they use something like SAFE."
Certainly SAFE is an intriguing idea. The idea of a decentralised, secure and completely private global network is very appealing and, as hacking stories mount and Snowden continues to reverberate, one that could not be more timely.
But life as a start-up - even a ten-year-old one - is a risky existence, especially as SAFE is likely to be controversial and unpopular with the authorities. But MaidSafe has a lively forum, a novel way of financing itself through Safecoin and bags of technical experience under its belt, so who knows? Ultimately its success will depend on attracting enough developers to create new Googles, Skypes and Dropboxes on the "Internet 2.0".
Read a Q&A with MaidSafe's Irvine and Lambert over at our sister site The Inquirer
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