How SmarterEveryDay's 4privacy can, and cannot, meet its goals October 22, 2021 on Drew DeVault's blog

I don’t particularly find myself to be a fan of the SmarterEveryDay YouTube channel, simply for being outside of Destin’s target audience most of the time. I understand that Destin, the channel’s host, is a friendly person and a great asset to his peers, and that he generally strives to do good. When I saw that he was involved in a Kickstarter to develop a privacy product, it piqued my interest. As a privacy advocate and jaded software engineer, I set out to find out what it’s all about.

You can watch the YouTube video here, and a short follow-up here.

There are several things to praise here. I honestly thought that Destin’s coverage of the topic of privacy for the layman was really well presented, and took some notes to use the next time I’m explaining privacy issues to my friends. The coverage of the history of wiretapping and the pivotal role played by 9/11, complete with an empathetic view of the mindset of American adults contemporary to it that many find hard to express, along with great drone shots of Big Tech’s mysterious datacenters, this is all great stuff. For the right project, Destin is a valuable asset with a large audience and a lot of experience in making complex issues digestible for the every-person, and 4privacy is lucky to have access to him.

A lot of the buzzwords and things found on their technology page are promising as well. The focus on end-to-end encryption and zero-knowledge principles, and the commitment to open source, are absolutely necessary and are great to see here. A lot of the tech described, although briefly, seems like it’s on the right track. The ability to use your own service provider, and the focus on decentralization and federation, is very good.

I do have some concerns, however. Let’s break them down into these categories:

  1. Incentives and economics
  2. Responsibilities and cultivating trust
  3. Ambitions and feasibility

Given the value ($$$) associated with private user information, it’s important to know that the trove of private information overseen by a company like this is safe from threats from the robber-barons of tech. 4privacy is looking for investors, which is a red flag: investors demand a return, and if the product isn’t profitable, user data is the first thing up for auction. So, how will 4privacy make money? We need to know. They might say that the E2EE prevents them from directly monetizing user data, and they’re right, but that’s only for today. If they become a market incumbent, they will have the power to change the technology in a way which compromises privacy faster than we can move to another system, and we need to understand that this will not happen.

Growing consumer awareness in privacy issues over the past decade, combined with a generally low level of technology literacy in the population, has allowed a lot of grifters to arise. One of the common forms these grifts take is seen in the rise of VPN companies, which prey on consumer fear and often use YouTube as a marketing channel, including on Destin’s previous videos. Another giant, flaming red flag appears whenever cryptocurrency is involved. In general terms, the privacy space is thoroughly infested with bad actors, which makes matters of trust very difficult. 4privacy needs to be prepared to be very honest and transparent with not only their tech, but their financial structure and incentives. With SourceHut, I had to engineer our incentives to suit stated goals, and I communicate this to users so that they can make informed choices about us. 4privacy would be wise to take similar steps, in full view of the public.

Empowering users to make informed choices leads me into our next point: is 4privacy ready to bear the burden of responsibility for this system? As far as I can glean from their mock-ups, they plan to be handling your government IDs, passwords, healthcare information, confidential attorney/client communications, and so on. The consequences of having this information compromised are grave, and this demands world-class security. It’s also extremely important for 4privacy to be honest with their users about what their security model can, and cannot, make promises about.

You must be honest with your users, and help them to understand how the system works, and when it doesn’t work, so that they can make informed choices about how to trust it. This can be difficult when the profit motive is involved, because they might conclude that they don’t want to use your service. It’s even more difficult when you exist in a space full of grifters that are happy to tell sweet lies to your users about fixing all of their problems. However, it must be done.

Privacy tools are relied upon by vulnerable people facing challenging situations. If you promise something you cannot deliver on, and they depend on you to keep their information private in impossible conditions, when the other shoe drops there could be dramatic consequences for their lives. If a journalist in a war-torn country depends on you to keep their documents private, and you fail, they could end up in prison or a labor camp or splattered on the wall of a dark alley, and it’ll have been your fault. You must be forthright and realistic with users about how your system can and cannot keep them safe. I hope Destin’s future videos in the privacy series will cover how the system works in more detail, including its limitations. He is skilled at explaining complicated topics in a comprehensible manner for everyday people to understand, and I hope he will leverage these skills here.

I have already noticed one place where they have failed to be honest in their limitations, however, and it presents a major concern for me. Much of their marketing speaks of the ability to revoke access to your private information after a third-party has been provided access to it. This is, frankly, entirely impossible, and I think it is extraordinarily irresponsible to design your application in a manner that suggests that it can be done. To keep things short, I’ll refute the idea as briefly as possible: what’s to stop someone from taking a picture of the phone while it’s displaying your private info? Or writing it down? When you press the “revoke” button in the app, and it dutifully disappears from their phone screen,1 the private information is still written on a piece of paper in their desk drawer and you’re none the wiser. The application has given you a false sense of security, which is a major problem for a privacy-oriented tool.

You can work in this problem space, albeit under severely limited constraints. For example, consider how the SSH agent works: an application which wants to use your private keys to sign something can ask the agent for help, but the agent will not provide the cryptographic keys for it to use directly — the agent will do the cryptographic operation on the application’s behalf and send the results to the application to use. These constraints limit the use-cases significantly, such that, for example, you could not send someone your social security number using this system. You could, however, design a protocol in which an organization which needs to verify your identity can ask, in programmatic terms, “is this person who they say they are?”, and 4privacy answers, possibly consulting their SSN, “yes” or “no”. This does not seem to be what they’re aiming for, however.

So, with all of this in mind, how ambitious is their idea as a whole? Is it feasible? What kind of resources will they need to pull it off?

In short, this idea is extraordinarily ambitious. They are designing a novel cryptosystem, which is an immediate red flag: designing a secure cryptosystem is one of the most technologically challenging feats a programming team can undertake. Furthermore, they’re building a distributed, federated system, which is itself a highly complex and challenging task, even more so when the system is leveraged to exchange sensitive information. It can be done, but it takes an extraordinarily talented team with hard-core technical chops and a lot of experience.

What’s more, if they were to do this well, it would involve developing and standardizing open protocols. This requires a greater degree of openness and community participation than they are planning to do. Furthermore, they need to get others to agree to implement these protocols, which involves solving social and political problems — both in technical and non-technical senses. For instance, the Dutch government stores much of my personal information in the DigiD system. Will they be able to convince the Netherlands to work with their protocols? How about every other country? And, if they want me to store my health insurance in the app, how are they going to convince my doctor to use the app to receive it? And how about every other doctor? And what about all of the other domains they want to be involved in outside of healthcare data? Will they interoperate with legacy systems to achieve the market penetration they need? Will those legacy systems provide for their end-to-end encryption needs, and if not, will users understand the consequences?

I’m not saying that any of this is impossible — only that it is extraordinarily difficult to pull off. Extraordinary projects require extraordinary resources. They will need multiple highly talented engineering teams working in parallel, and the support staff necessary to keep them going.

Their goal on Kickstarter, which was quickly met and exceeded, is $175,000. This is nowhere near enough, so either they aren’t going to pull it off, or they have more money from somewhere else. Destin is acknowledged as an investor, and they are seeking more investments on their website — how much money, and from whom, now and in the future? By taking the lion’s share from entities other than their users, they have set up concerning incentives in which the entities responsible for private data have millions on the line and are itchy to get returns, and the entities whom the private data concerns haven’t been invited to the negotiating table.

In short, I would urge them to do the following:

4privacy should generally institute a policy of greater transparency and openness by default, preferring to keep private only what they absolutely must. There is no shame in iterating on an incomplete product in the view of the public. On the contrary, I am quite proud that my business works in this manner.

The fundraising campaign quickly met its goal and will presumably only continue to grow in the coming weeks — it’s reasonably certain that it will close with at least $1M raised. Having met their goal, the product will presumably ship, and we’ll see the answers to these questions eventually. The team has a lot of work ahead of them: good luck.

  1. And there’s no guarantee that it will, for the record. ↩︎

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