The pros and cons of online privacy have been much debated recently. Since the Edward Snowden fiasco, people have hailed sites that facilitate online anonymity as the best thing since sliced bread. However, there’s a darker side to the concealment of identity that the internet provides – just look at the storm still brewing around Ask.fm after teenager Hannah Smith committed suicide having being bullied by anonymous users of the site.
With the above in mind, encrypted messaging platform Trsst will, potentially, be faced with praise from one camp and resistance from the other. The platform, which is currently in development, will allow users to send messages secretly and anonymously, if they so desire.
It will be something like a cross between social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and blog sites like WordPress, except public posts will be search indexable by anyone and private messages really will be private.
Each user will have a keypair for each Trsst blog they own, and the public key will also be the globally unique identifier for the blog. As this keypair is generated in the same way that bitcoin payment addresses are generated, each Trsst blog ID is therefore a valid destination payment address for bitcoin.
The man behind Trsst, technology entrepreneur Michael Powers, said: “This opens up tremendous room for innovation in content micropayment monetization, including for example ‘tipping’ a blogger when you like a post, or being able to charge for an article you wrote based on who is syndicating it and how many views it gets.”
Powers spoke to CoinDesk about the lack of privacy Twitter and Facebook users have, explaining both are corporations that operate under license from the US government.
“This means their shareholders and directors can, at any time, direct the executives to make or break any privacy promises to their user base, and the government can compel or even appropriate their user data by law or executive order.”
Powers explained that a private direct message sent on Trsst is encrypted with the recipient’s public key. The recipient then has to use their private key to open the message, which means the information and photos contained can’t be intercepted by anyone but the addressee.
This feature could fill the void left by the closure of Lavabit and Silent Circle’s Silent Mail service, but only if Trsst receives the funding required to complete development. It has so far raised over $5,600 of its $48,000 goal and has 23 days to go until the funding period ends.
Powers, who once worked in financial services and then on “top-secret military stuff”, said existing RSS readers will be able to parse and read the posts users decide to set as public (private messages will appear as blocks of encoded text).
A user’s Trsst client, which will typically be a web browser but could also be a native app, encodes and signs their public posts with each entry’s signature, incorporating the signature of the previous entry, forming what is called a “blog chain”.
“This allows you to prove your entries were not modified or censored or suppressed, which is important if you’re a dissident in a dangerous country trying to communicate with your followers,” Powers explained.
The user’s client maintains a copy of their blog chain, but it also exists in cached copies throughout the Trsst federation of servers. People can push updates to any server to update the distributed copy and they can pull others’ blog chains from any server just by searching by blog ID.
“This makes it very hard blacklist or filter out Trsst blogs and even harder to make sense of site logs and traffic patterns. This is important if you’re trying to get information into or out of a country with a repressive regime,” Powers said.
Crime and trolling
Not everyone sees the preservation of privacy that Trsst will afford as a positive thing. There are legitimate concerns people could take advantage of the encrypted messaging system to aid their criminal activities. Criminals would find it a lot easier to plan terrorist attacks or drug deals, for example, if they could send messages safe in the knowledge the police wouldn’t be able to have a nosey.
Not only this, but it could facilitate trolling, allowing people to bully others under the cloak of anonymity. Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist and professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, spoke on this topic just last week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Computers have given “spiteful people” the opportunity to share their “monstrous” views without paying attention to normal social concerns, the Telegraph reports her as saying.
“Of course there’s always been bullying, there’s always been spiteful people. But until the screen gave a platform and the cyberworld gave them a means of expression and an anonymity, we have always been constrained,” Greenfield said.
“It’s not that the blogosphere is making people like that; it’s like Lord of the Flies. It’s giving people the chance to express the worst side of human nature which is normally constrained by body language,” the Baroness explained.
Powers recognises that crime and cyberbullying are big issues, but suggested he values lack of privacy as being a greater problem.
“I don’t pretend this isn’t disruptive technology, but it does boil down to a fundamental rights issue. If we allow censorship, people will be censored. If we allow surveillance, people will be surveilled. My take is that there are a lot of people in a lot of countries with bigger problems than cyberbullying, and life and liberty is an overriding consideration,” he explained.
On Monday, Ask.fm announced measures it’s going to implement to improve its safety policy, including a more visible button that people can use to report abuse, plus a dedicated report category for ‘bullying and harassment’. From October, people will also be able to opt out of receiving questions from anonymous users, and in January, the company will hire a safety officer to moderate comments on the site.
Powers said Trsst users will be able to choose between a number of hosting providers and each provider will be responsible for the establishing their own terms and conditions relating to user safety as well as adhering to local laws governing freedom of speech.
He said that in the UK, for example, content hosting services have to be careful because laws against libel are very strong and hosts can be held to account for disparaging remarks they serve.
“You could imagine UK hosting providers flagging certain Trsst IDs and refusing to serve or relay their content if it is reported as harassment. The same could be true for any hosting provider in any jurisdiction,” Powers added.
Let us know your thoughts on Trsst, and online anonymity in general, in the comments.