November 20, 2008
Online Privacy – Strange Bedfellows…
Normally, when people think of ‘online’, privacy is definitely not the first, second, or fiftieth thought that comes to mind. If fact, people generally exhibit quite the opposite response and conjure up images of complete nakedness. After all, the modern-day Internet has evolved mostly for the purpose of providing instant exposure, distribution, and presence to the world over. The question then becomes, can the value of the Internet extend beyond nakedness?
One of the driving purposes behind SpiderOak was to dispel the notion that just because data is online means it can no longer be private. The goal was simple – devise a plan where a user’s files, filenames, file types, folders, and/or any other personal information is never exposed to anyone for any reason (even under government subpoena). This of course includes the SpiderOak staff who – even with physical access to the servers upon which the data resides – should never be able to see or interact with a user’s plaintext data. Creating this environment, however, would prove more difficult than simply making these statements.
In the beginning, we grappled with how best to accomplish this feat – creating ‘Zero-Knowledge’ privacy as we call it. Most of our competitors and thousands of other companies make claims and statements about security and privacy but, at the end of the day, they would all fall short of achieving our aforementioned goals. To use the most general example – if a company can reset your password, it means someone in the company has access to your encryption keys (if they encrypt the data) which further means they can access your data if they ‘had’ to or, worse yet, someone else could with far worse intentions.
A more specific case is Mozy’s use of encryption. Mozy’s encryption is far better than most online storage providers and yet it contains serious oversights. The default options have you choosing between a stronger ‘Mozy’ key (which Mozy then knows and could use to decrypt your data) or a weaker key you choose on your own and keep private. Even if you choose the weaker private key, Mozy still stores your file and folder names in plain text – meaning they know a list of every file archived from your computer. We would suspect they know the size and timestamp of each file as well although this information has not been publicly disclosed. This seems to represent a great deal of information to reveal about the contents of your ‘private’ data, doesn’t it?
To overcome this threat and others, we at SpiderOak decided to never store a user’s password nor the plaintext of a user’s encryption keys. This ensures that there can never be a point – ever – where we could even unknowingly betray the trust or privacy of a user. Why? Because – to put it simply – we don’t ever come into contact with the keys needed to unlock the encryption surrounding the data. Even with physical access to the server or under subpoena, SpiderOak simply can never see or turn over a user’s plaintext files, filenames, file sizes, file types, etc… On the server, we only see sequentially numbered containers of encrypted data.
This necessarily meant a different approach to various processes throughout SpiderOak which you may or may not have noticed – including forced registration through the desktop application and never via the web. In the
end, however, we did accomplish our goals and proved that, although strange bedfellows indeed, ‘online’ and ‘privacy’ can sleep next to each other every night, naked, and live happily ever after…