A Colorado company is betting it can make the decentralized web more accessible with a no-frills server you can install in your own home.
Start9 Labs’ Embassy server, housed in a Raspberry Pi, sets up its own private internet network and comes with its own operating system as well as an expanding range of services such as bitcoin transactions, messaging and password management that cut out middlemen and use the Tor network to communicate.
People use the Tor network because it makes it incredibly difficult to trace internet activity to a user, encrypting it multiple times and hiding a user’s location. But Tor can be hard to navigate for those who aren’t tech savvy. That’s why Start9 Labs is betting on Embassy’s no-frills operating system, Ambassador – which handles server setup, owner authentication, networking and the installation, configuration and serving of decentralized apps – to make the decentralized web more accessible and popular.
“[It’s] net-connected hardware that will all be networked together on a private internet, rather than each of those devices feeding all your private data to whatever cloud provider sold you that device,” said Matt Hill, co-founder of Start9 Labs.
Start9 Labs is not building on Web 2.0, but rather hijacking that infrastructure so people can run their own private networks. To build a new internet from the ground up requires a physical hardware device in every single home, said Hill. The Embassy server is a first step in that direction.
If this seems abstract and esoteric, consider the recent security law China has imposed on Hong Kong, essentially criminalizing some forms of thought, expression and speech, in response to pro-democracy protests that raged there last year. Google, Twitter and Facebook stopped reviewing requests for user data from Hong Kong by law enforcement while evaluating the law. But these companies still control reams of user data, much of it intimately linked to users’ thoughts and speech. The Embassy server and the services built into it by design don’t allow such companies access to data.
“We are building this company and this product in such a way that it actually can’t be censored, can’t be subpoenaed for anything,” said Hill. “It’s important to us that if somebody says, ‘Stop doing what you’re doing,’ our response is, ‘Honestly, we can’t.’”
Hill and co-founder Keagan McClelland recently appeared on a Coin Center podcast with Peter Van Valkenburgh to discuss the need for privacy tech. They noted that troublesome centralization comes in many forms, be it Gmail or exchanges like Coinbase, which serves as the intermediary for millions of cryptocurrency transactions. They want to change that.
Hill pitches his kit as an easy, out-of-the-box solution for accessing your private network. So I tried it out with one of the Embassy servers. Privacy-focused tech is often more difficult than conventional tech to understand and use. You’re replacing streamlined user interfaces on apps like Facebook with something more minimalist that doesn’t abuse your data. But I was able to set up the Embassy following the four simple steps it laid out, and access the Start9 Embassy app in Apple’s App store.
Soon after, I was using the Cups messenger service, which looks like a standalone app on my homescreen, to ping Hill a message from my unique Tor address to his, authenticated with our private keys through the Ambassador OS.
Cups doesn’t currently have push notifications, and there is a bit of a lag. But it functions just fine, was easy to operate and there is no middleman to snoop on our messages. It was just me and Hill, communicating through our own private servers.
The Embassy server currently costs $200, but Start9 Labs is going to be releasing the specs online, so anyone can build it. The software is all open source, and people can build apps to add to it. The goal, said Hill, is to create tech that could live on even after the company may be gone.
“If we go away, our spirit continues, there is no killing we’re doing,” said Hill. “We are a company, so it can be forcibly closed. But the technology that has been developed lives on as though nothing happened. It’s open source software running on commodity hardware. How do you stop that?”