Web giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter give you a choice, say the developers working on Priv.ly: hand over the keys to your personal data, or stay off the social web. And while they hope it will catch on among all privacy junkies, they think it could play a role in revolutions against oppressive governments as well.
To that end, they’re developing a browser extension that makes hyperlinks to encrypted text, photo, or video content appear as decrypted content on common sites like Reddit and Google+. Unlike earlier attempts at such a plugin, content is stored remotely, rather than on the social network or email provider’s server, granting users another layer of protection.
“My reason for developing the concept was frustration that every technical advance came with a commensurate retreat of personal privacy,” wrote lead developer Sean McGregor, a PhD student at Oregon State University, in an email message. “I want social networks and email to be more personal, and less guarded, but as long as companies have an irrevocable right to your communications, that is not possible.”
Of course, your information is still vulnerable if one of your friends is a snitch – a very real concern for activists looking to defend their digital lives under oppressive regimes. But McGregor says that personal trust is out of the developers’ control, and that users are going to have to decide who to let into their encrypted bubble.
A challenge facing dissidents, he believes, is that unrest in the Middle East during the past year has forced totalitarian states to wise up about tracking – and cracking down on – online activism.
“I think we’ll find that the Arab Spring made oppressive governments take notice of the technology industry in a new way,” McGregor wrote. “No company can provide the security necessary to protect their data from international espionage.”
Social networks are designed to easily share information, not to protect users’ identities. Activists, McGregor believes, should assume that all unencrypted communications will eventually be made public.
The inspiration for Priv.ly, McGregor said, came when he was walking to the deli and started to consider the economy of hyperlinks. It occurred to him that the structure of the internet uses links in only one direction, and that reversing that flow could “build privacy into the internet.”
“I didn’t make it to the deli,” he wrote.
The team that gathered around the project launched a Kickstarter page to raise funds for the project, and have garnered $17,364 out of a $10,000 goal, with four days to go.