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SpiderOak Takes Novel Approach To Data Privacy

Prism episode has increased interest for cloud services like SpiderOak, which does not keep copies of user encryption keys -- and thus can't provide access to user files.

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Ethan Oberman has a problem with cloud computing. "A person should be able to use cloud technologies without relinquishing his or her privacy," explained Oberman, CEO of cloud storage service SpiderOak, in a phone interview.

Given Internet companies that rely on mining data about users for revenue, government agencies that have the capability to monitor online activities and read personal communications, businesses seeking competitive intelligence, and hackers hammering at the data piggy banks, maintaining a comfortable degree of privacy isn't easy.

The problem is that cryptography isn't easy. Cryptography doesn't ensure security. It's merely an element of a broader security strategy. But it has become a necessary element, given the inadequacy of perimeter-based protection. Because barriers can be penetrated or bypassed, data deserves additional protection.

[ Want to know how the NSA justifies the agency's spying programs? Read NSA Director Faces Security Pros At Black Hat. ]

SpiderOak is one of a handful of companies that have adopted a "zero-knowledge" approach to cloud computing services: It does not keep copies of users' encryption keys, so it cannot provide access to a user's files on demand or otherwise. From a liability and compliance perspective, ignorance is bliss.

In an effort to spread the gospel of ignorance, SpiderOak has been working on a zero-knowledge open-source application framework called Crypton that will allow developers to integrate strong cryptography into cloud-based applications. It can be used to ensure that servers running an application cannot read the data created and stored by the application. Decryption is done in the client, whether that's a browser or a native app.

Crypto libraries, of course, already exist and are widely used, but as a framework, Crypton covers a broader range of functions. It's more of an out-of-the-box privacy option than crypto plumbing that requires additional structure.

In contrast to a conventional application that passes data to a relational database, a Crypton-enabled application passes private data to an object database. Changes to stored objects are encrypted prior to transmission to the server.

On Wednesday, SpiderOak published updates to the Crypton website as part of its effort to ready the project for a 1.0 release, planned for later this year. New additions include a developer guide and improved documentation, quick-start instructions and a variety of code improvements.

"The thing that Crypton provides is it allows developers to be competitive in the privacy space without becoming privacy experts themselves," said Oberman.

While demand for privacy and security has historically been tepid outside the enterprise space — few individuals recognize the value of security and privacy if they haven't been victimized, and developers tend to treat privacy as an afterthought — Oberman sees a silver lining in recent revelations about the permeability of cloud services.

"In some ways, I think this Prism episode was a very important event," said Oberman in reference to the ongoing revelations about the scope of NSA data gathering. "It definitely changed the trajectory of the debate."

Though Oberman could not provide specific figures that demonstrate rising affinity for data protection, he said that he has been in touch with several companies focused on privacy, like Duck Duck Go and Silent Circle, and their experience has been similar.

"All of us have seen a dramatic increase in interest across the board, from consumers up to the enterprise," he said.

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