Harry Halpin is a speaker at Consensus: Distributed, our free and virtual event that starts on May 11. A philosopher of the web and all-around radical open-internet advocate, Halpin is the CEO of Nym, a privacy-tech startup. Here he talks to privacy reporter Benjamin Powers about what he’s doing to see out the virus and why “holistic privacy” matters more than ever at a time like this.
Powers: How are you holding up?
Halpin: I first heard about coronavirus, not surprisingly, through crypto Twitter. At first I panicked and went out and bought about a month’s supply of food and basically started preparing for lockdown, which then did indeed happen. It was the first time crypto Twitter seems to have been correct. I would never trust crypto Twitter when it comes to cryptocurrency, but it was completely correct on the coronavirus.
In my personal life it’s not a huge change. The main difference is I no longer travel. Our team is spread out among Belgium, London and other places but now our team is just fully remote. On some level I’ve enjoyed not traveling because I can get more work done.
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So I just wake, do some stretching and I’ve ordered weights and a punching bag. And so I just wake up, I go running, I stretch, and then will do some weightlifting and boxing. The main issue to some extent is lack of downtime. Because there’s no events or socializing outside of me and my girlfriend basically. So far we’ve not killed each other, so it’s been fine!
BP: We’re all learning a lot about our relationships these days.
HH: But when I call my friends and family in the United States I get very concerned. Most of my friends have lost jobs, and most people we know in the States had their health care attached to their job. They can’t afford it otherwise. It’s interesting, too, because my younger friends, who are Zoomers or millennials, are taking this really seriously, while the [baby] boomers aren’t. It’s really weird but it looks like the boomers are in a deathtrap.
BP: And how is COVID-19 impacting your business?
So we obviously can’t have regular in-person meetings. But when it comes to online meetings and chatting, we do that all the time anyway. So it’s been fine and makes you think that maybe we didn’t need as many face to face meetings as I thought we did previously.
We’re making a lot of breakthroughs partially because it’s easier to focus without a lot of meetings, events and conferences. That being said, we have had a lot of security concerns. We set up our own Jitsi server and we’re phasing out of Zoom. We’re keeping all internal communication encrypted. We are big fans of Signal and to a lesser extent Keybase.
And from a bottom line business standpoint, it’s been fine. In terms of funding we aren’t a huge Filecoin-style project. We’ve never raised that much in f funds, but we’ve done conservative management of the funds we have, so we have a year’s runway or so. Therefore, we’re not particularly concerned about running out of money and, to some extent, we’ve noticed that cutting travel has saved a lot of money.
That being said, we did have to phase back and remove a few contractors and cut non-essential expenses. From the business standpoint the question is, how long is coronavirus going to last? Should we keep our office leases? Those are pretty large sunk costs. We’re also, as a blockchain business, not sure if we even qualify for these government loans and emergency funding.
If you’re a firm with a year’s worth of runaway in the bank, it’s unlikely. And, looking at the fine print, it seems to say these loans are only for businesses that will have to lose employees. And that’s not really the case for us. We cut contractors and we cut one employee at the end of the month.
The loans also aren’t all that big and, with the bureaucratic overhead, maybe a smarter decision for the business would be, or at least what I’m doing with some of my personal finances, is playing the long game on bitcoin.
BP: You and I have spoken previously about contact tracing, which is something you have been looking at closely. Does it worry you?
HH: When it comes to contact tracing, we see a lot of interest in blockchain, even if that’s not translated to financial support. We see people wanting to build on a mixnet, and researchers discussing the benefits of that. And we were talking with some governments, but that’s gone cold, and I’m worried governments are moving towards centralized, non-privacy enhanced solutions. So why would they fund research or deployment of a privacy enhanced solution? [A mix network, taking its name from the proxy servers it employs, called “mixes,” obscures the metadata left behind when data passes through a network.]
BP: And so give us a little preview about what you’re going to be tackling and talking about at Consensus.
HH: We’re going to be looking at privacy, holistic privacy, and not just cryptocurrencies. So a lot of people believe rather mistakenly that if I send them monero transaction or Zcash transaction it’s fully secure and private, but that’s just not true. With Zcash not only do you have to be shielded but you have to descend to your network-level traffic (that’s your IP address), which is broadcasting your bitcoin transaction or your Zcash transaction and every other transaction.
So we’re going to walk people through what we call a holistic approach to privacy, starting with a kind of interesting setup where we’re going to try to get people to use a VPN. There’s a very nice secure VPN run by the ex-Pirate Bay people that takes payment in cryptocurrency without your ID. I’m going to see if people could get that set up, then work with them on The Onion Router (TOR), particularly looking at Tails, which is the Linux bootable TOR CD that [whistleblower Edward] Snowden used, which is still up to date and very probably the best network-level security.
But it’s not clear how to integrate Tails very well with something like Zcash or monero desktop wallets. I’ve actually done it. It’s very complicated.
And then lastly, we’re going to get people to try to spin up, or contribute to privacy, by running a TOR relay and mixnet, showing them how to set up their own VPN server. That would mean they could go to, say, China and communicate back without too much of a problem.