PrivaTegrity: the flawed model of distributed keys

Dave Chaum’s idea to to try and balance between state actors demand for internet sovereignty and the defacto end of citizen privacy, with the need to address emotive causes such as terrorism, paedophile rings and organised crime got a lot of attention from wired.
Yesterday evening on a bus stop in Bow
The principle behind PrivaTegrity is that there would be a backdoor, but the back door could only be opened with a nine-part key. The parts would be distributed internationally to try and reduce the ability of a single state actor to force access.

However it has a number of flaws to it:

  • It assumes that bad people will use a  cryptographic system with a known backdoor. They won’t they will look elsewhere for the technology
  • It has a known backdoor, there is no guarantee that it can’t be opened in a way that the developers hadn’t thought of
  • Nine people will decide what’s evil
  • If you’re a state actor or a coalition of state actors, you know that you have nine targets to go after in order to obtain access by hook-or-by-crook. It was only Edward Snowden who showed us how extraordinarily powerful companies where bent to the will of the US government. The UK government is about to grant itself extra-territorial legal powers to compel access. There is no reason why a form of extra-ordinary rendition couldn’t be used to compel access, rather like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings bending the ring bearers to his will. Think of it as Operation Neptune Spear meets a Dungeons & Dragon quest held at a black site

More information
The Father of Online Anonymity Has a Plan to End the Crypto War | WIRED
Privategrity

WeChat Life Report

Nice collection of consumer behaviour data on WeChat. Over the past year WeChat has expanded the services that it provides to include Skype like conference calls, which changes and expands the behaviour in this report. (Presentation on Slideshare)

The changing culture of Silicon Valley

When I was in college I interviewed for a few placements, one was with Hewlett-Packard in Germany. They wanted a marketing student to look after their printing brochures on demand initiative for their UNIX product line. This was going to save them a mint in terms of marketing spend using an Indigo Digital Press rather than brochure runs on litho printing, reducing waste, storage needs and allow for faster document updates. (HP went on to buy Indigo in 2001).

Commercial adoption of the web was around the corner, I was already using it in college, but its ubiquity still seemed quite far away. I decided I didn’t want to go for the job primarily because I wanted to get my degree over and done with and HP weren’t paying that much for the role.

We were interviewed by a succession of people, the only one who was memorable  was a guy called Tim Nolte who wore a Grateful Dead tie and had a Jerry Garcia mouse mat in his cubicle.

At that time HP, had the dressing of the company man but had more than a few hippies on the payroll who permeated its culture. Reading Robert X Cringely’s Accidental Empires made me realise that technology was as much a culture war as technological upheaval.

If one looks at the icons of the technology sector up to and including the early noughties many of the people were influenced by the counterculture movement if not part of it. The  Grateful Dead where one of the first bands to have their own website at dead.net. The Electronic Frontier Foundation was founded by John Perry Barlow, a lyricist with The Grateful Dead. Steve Jobs was influenced by Indian mystics and his experiences using LSD.

Stewart Brand who founded WIRED magazine and The WeLL was the editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, a guide to useful things for people who wanted to get back to the land. He was influential in the early environmentalist movement and had been involved in the counterculture of 1960s San Francisco.
Members of the Golden Circle Senior Citizens Club of Fairmont holding quilt they made. The quilt was raffled off during the Fairmont centennial, May 1973
Ideas from open APIs and creative commons came from their libertarian values. Open Source Software again comes from academic and countercultural attitudes to information and has had to defend itself from accusations of communism, yet it now runs most of the world’s web services and gadgets from smartphones to Google’s search engine.

Reading the Cluetrain Manifesto is like reading a screed that could have come from an alternative Haight Ashbury.

Aeon magazine wrote an article on how yuppies have hacked the hacker ethos, but the truth is they’ve got behind the steering wheel as web2.0 declined. The move from open web API’s and the walled garden approach of Facebook and their ilk marked a changing of the guard of sorts.

Flickr had and ability to move your photos as a matter of pride in their product. Just a few clicks kept them honest and kept them innovating. Joshua Schachter’s similar approach on del.icio.us allowed me to move to pinboard.in when Yahoo! announced that it would be sunset.

Government always is the last to catch up, which is the reason why open data only really gained mainstream political currency in the past five years.

Were now in a Silicon Valley whose values are closer to the Reagan years and I am not too sure what it will do for innovation. I suspect that the change won’t be positive.

More information
Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date by Robert X Cringely
Don’t listen to Bill Gates. The open-source movement isn’t communism. | Slate
How yuppies hacked the hacker ethos – Aeon

Alan Kay – Normal Considered Harmful

Alan Kay is an iconoclast in the history of personal computing. He worked at Apple, Xerox PARC and Atari. He was part of Apple’s R&D team up until 1984. He has challenged the direction of personal computing and is the father of object orientated programming – which is the foundation of many modern programming and web development languages.

Kay’s presentation on computing given in 2009 is well worth a watch to get a macro view of the state-of-play in computing. It is interesting how many new ideas are actually old and how the skills of computer programming in some ways has gone backwards.

Desktop and mobile messaging

Over the past few weeks WhatsApp has rolled out a web client to complement its previously mobile-only experience. From a technical point-of-view this was WhatsApp playing catch-up with its rivals.
Mobile social network ecosystems
Skype has long been a multi-platform messaging system that made the leap to mobile over eight years ago. LINE has had both desktop and mobile applications for a while. WeChat had had a web interface for at least two years in addition to its mobile client and dedicated desktop clients for both OS X and Windows.
wechat app
Those whom I spoke to who had used the web interface talked of WhatsApp’s ‘unique’ way of handing off from mobile to the web through the use of QRcodes. And they were surprised when I showed them WeChat’s implementation that looked eerily similar and has been around for much longer.

There is a certain paradox that the most successful OTT messaging platforms now have a presence on the desktop, yet instant messaging clients like Yahoo!, MSN, AOL and ICQ weren’t able to successfully move from desktop to mobile.

So why desktop and why now?

Is it about WhatsApp putting pressure on Apple to change its model to suit WhatsApp?

The Messages app in iOS is secure, supports voice, photos and text messages. It offers much of the functionality of WhatsApp. WhatsApp complains that it can’t repeatedly charge on a yearly basis for its service on iOS, yet iOS has supported in-app payments for a while. I suspect WhatsApp wants to get a free ride or its beef with iOS is from some unstated reason.  In summary, whilst WhatsApp’s web service is only available to Android users, I don’t think that this is really about Apple.

It is threatened by other apps?

WhatsApp has a big presence across the world (outside of China) in the OTT messaging space with over 700 million active users. However other services are managing to increase their footprint.

I took a straw poll of some friends with regards their messaging usage. Did they just leave one platform for another in the same way that Google won out in search or was there something else going on?

Most people that I spoke to weren’t generally deleting  the more popular messaging apps and moving from one to the other generally. (They had tried and sometimes deleted the likes of Telegram or Wickr for instance). But they did have different groups of contacts in different places. So WhatsApp probably isn’t losing its spot on established users phones at all, and having a rival app on a phone isn’t likely to make WhatsApp lose out from being downloaded on a new phone.

By all accounts, different messaging platforms are about different groups of friends and contexts. WhatsApp tended to connect with family more often than other messaging services.

Is is about usage time?

I suspect that this could be the case. It was interesting to hear a couple of friends talk about LINE. They commented that LINE had a range of stickers, but the main reason is that you can use LINE at work without having to use your phone and it be obvious with your boss. I think that this is where WhatsApp could be feeling a gap and decided to fill it.
what is mobile
It also begs a second question. When you have laptops that will run for 8 to 10 hours on a battery and slip in a bag like a tablet, is desktop yet another mobile device? The kind of work usage mentioned would also fit in nicely in a coffee shop or in front of the TV with the family; a subtle back channel to the outside world.

My understanding was that WhatsApp was focused on getting people in the developing world on board, they provided a lean bandwidth frugal messaging platform that was leaner than Facebook. Instead, the web interface is more aimed at ‘first world problems’.

More information
Four Of The Top Six Social Networks Are Actually Chat Apps | Marketingland
WhatsApp hits 700 million monthly active users — GigaOM
Messaging app Kik passes 200M users | VentureBeat
From Messaging Apps To Ecosystems : Line, WeChat, Viber & Others | LinkedIn
Why Apps for Messaging Are Trending – NYTimes.com
Every app is a communications app | Layer
WeChat to overtake WhatsApp as top messaging app in India: GWI | Digital Market Asia
WeChat Dominates APAC Mobile Messaging in Q3 2014
Tencent Drafts Chinese Expats for U.S. Duel With WhatsApp – Bloomberg

The smartphone value system

Benedict Evans in his post Unbundling innovation: Samsung, PCs and China compared the smartphone industry to the PC industry where value began to be hollowed out and the market became commoditised.

Evans claims that this is already happening to Samsung. Part of the challenge is that so much of the design of the hardware layer in phones comes from reference designs by component manufacturers like Qualcomm and reference design work done by manufacturers like Foxconn. Globalisation outsourced hardware design innovation, a plus side of this is that there is a whole eco-system in southern China that can support anyone who wants to make a branded handset building on experience gained working with major technology brands.

As he quite rightly points out some businesses are looking to take control of their business by building beyond hardware and into the service stack.

A number of manufacturers put their own UI over Android like HTC’s Sense UI and Huawei’s Emotion UI. Whilst these contributed to a handset personality, they didn’t provide differentiation. Facebook even tried to get in on the act with Facebook Home, but the user experience left something to be desired according to reviewers.

Manufacturers tried to add applications in their phones, which competed with Google’s own application stack. At the present time, no Android manufacturer has come up with a killer application for their brand of phone, mainly because they replicated Google’s efforts and with the exception of Samsung, the application wouldn’t be sufficiently ubiquitous – particularly if it was some sort of communications platform like say Whatsapp.

Meanwhile, Google hasn’t been sitting quietly on the sidelines but has been using its power within the community to exasperate commoditisation by combatting manufacturers efforts at software customisation. This process has been rolled further into the Android efforts with strict guidance on Android Wear devices. All of this may feel quite similar to Microsoft Windows around about the time of their dispute with Netscape.
The ultimate budget phone shootout: Xiaomi Redmi vs Huawei Honor 3C vs Motorola G.
Deeper innovation requires a fork in the Android OS and a break with some if not all of the services. This break has been forced on Chinese manufacturers anyway as consumers wouldn’t be able to access Google’s maps, email or search. Which is the reason why Xiaomi’s MIUI, Jolla’s Sailfish OS and CyanogenMod have an opportunity to work with phone manufacturers.
Charles' Jolla phone
However, the ironic aspect of this is that any of these platforms became too successful they would wield as much power as Google does at the moment.

A sweet spot for hardware manufacturers would be a hetreogenuous OS environment, all of which will run Android-compliant applications. In order for this to work, you would need an equivalent of POSIX compliance for Unix-type operating systems for these mobile OS’ and a way of ensuring that platform innovation didn’t ossify either the OS or the internet services supporting it.

Where does Apple fit into all this?
DSCF6958
Could the HTC One have been built without manufacturers having invested in milling machines after the introduction of the iPhone 5 aluminium monocoque chassis? Apple’s process innovations / popularisation of production techniques opens up opportunities for the wider Android community. This is because of Apple’s focus on materials innovation as well full integration of the services and software stack.

This lends weight to a viewpoint that Apple has in some respects has become a ‘fashion brand’ as one of my colleagues put it, think a watchmaker rather than say a fashion house like Louis Vuitton and the analogy has a certain amount of merit. This also implies that when thinking about the iPhone the value decision lifts itself out of the economic rational actor. However there are also shifting costs. You don’t buy a DSLR camera, you buy into a system since the camera needs lens in order to work. Applications (particularly paid for applications) play a similar role, as do services.  There is an inherent switching cost away from iPhone, this is lower when switching platform from Andrioid to iPhone and practically none existent for many users upgrading their Android handsets.

So in many respects Apple sits apart from this in the same way that the Mac sat within, yet apart from the PC industry.

More information
Unbundling innovation: Samsung, PCs and China
Android and differentiation | renaissance chambara
Messaging’s middleware moment | renaissance chambara
The folly of technology co-marketing budgets | renaissance chambara
HTC One – gsmarena