FutureScot, 28 April, 2016 2 - Page 10

10 FUTURESCOT COVER STORY 28 April 2016 The future of the internet might lie in a hut in Troon with a software company whose boss is a part-time lifeboat helmsman Stranger things have happened but could MaidSafe’s plan for an alternative internet actually float – or sink without trace? BY KEVIN O’SULLIVAN Two years ago a little-known software company from Troon rather unexpectedly announced that it had raised $6m in the space of five hours by crowdselling access to a new product they had not even yet created. Through its own community forum, a developer mailing list and Google Hangouts, the firm in question, MaidSafe, had managed to excite enough people to invest in what was – and still is as I write – an idea. If it was a pitching effort on Dragon’s Den, you might expect to be told ‘you don’t have a business’, but that hasn’t stopped a dedicated team of developers run by a part-time lifeboat helmsman in a seaside town otherwise known for its golf course and its ice creams. But for those who have supported MaidSafe over the last 10 years – friends, families and a grassroots online community (company COO Nick Lambert jokes that they are “one of the world’s oldest startups”) it is because of a deeply-held belief in their cause. That cause, not to put too fine a point on it, is to create a new internet. As jaw-dropping as that sounds - it’s “bonkers” according to one of their advisers, Michael Jackson, the former COO of Skype, who has taken an active interest in the tiny firm which operates out of a ramshackle hut-like office – the idea is grounded in some pretty sound principles, as I am increasingly persuaded during conversations with both Lambert and Jackson. To grasp why MaidSafe could potentially have a huge impact on the digital world, it helps to look back at the history of the internet, which was originally designed to be a means of communicating information across a decentralised network. THIS IDEA came about in the mid- 1960s and the first workable internet was ARPANET – a US Department of Defense research project. It has been claimed that the intention of this project was to create a pool of critical government and military information spread across a network that could survive a nuclear attack, although those design goals are still debated. Nevertheless, Lambert’s argument is that the internet has paradoxically evolved to become very centralised, with vast corporations holding much of our private information in remotely located data centres located around the world. We trade much of our information – sometimes reticently, sometimes willingly – for access to many of the ‘free’ web services we enjoy: Facebook and Google to name perhaps the two most powerful. There is a tacit understanding – tied up in many, many pages of ‘privacy’ agreements that we accede to – that our information may be sold on to advertisers, hence why we don’t actually pay for any of these services. It is that trade-off, a necessary one for the current free models to work, that has partly inspired MaidSafe – through the idea of its founder David Irvine – to establish an alternative internet, where the network is returned back to its original decentralised state, and where we can all exercise our fundamental human rights of privacy, security and freedom. That is all very well, and more than a bit theoretical, but who can claim these days that they feel safe when browsing online that the many usernames and passwords they enter into websites to access their banks, social media accounts and emails are immune from “The SAFE network is a crowdsourced internet, replacing data centres and servers with users’ spare computing resources” Nick Lambert, COO, MaidSafe loss or theft by increasingly sophisticated hacking attempts? You only have to think of the attacks on Sony and Talk Talk to realise that our data can be very vulnerable. And it’s not just a feeling. According to the Breach Level Index – a survey by the world-leading digital security firm Gemalto – more than 3.6 billion data records have been exposed worldwide since 2013 when the index began benchmarking publicly-disclosed data breaches. The report found that in 2015, ‘malicious outsiders’ were the leading source of these breaches, accounting for 964, or 58%, of breaches and 38% of compromised records, while identity theft remained the primary type of breach, accounting for 53% of data breaches and 40% of all compromised records.  These breaches increasingly leave people with the unnerving sense that they might be next, a sentiment echoed in last year’s Eurobarometer – an EU-wide survey of 28,000 people on the subject of data protection. The central finding of the survey shows that trust in digital environments remained David Irvine, MaidSafe chief executive and founder, left, with company chief operating officer Nick Lambert low. Two-thirds of respondents said that they were worried about having no control over the information they provided online, while only 15% felt they had complete control. SO, IF AN alternative way of data storage and communications could be created, it would it would surely command a great deal of popular support. And this is where companies like MaidSafe could potentially come in, with its SAFE (Secure Access for Everyone) network. Originally using the software language C++ (this has now been supplanted by Rust, a simpler, more efficient code) the company is about to launch its MVP (Minimum Viable Product) to the world, where it will hopefully demonstrate that SAFE not only works, but is much better than what we currently have. “The SAFE network is a crowdsourced internet replacing data centres and servers with users’ spare computing resources,” explains Lambert. “What we are creating here is an infrastructure and what we will be trying to do is engage with application developers like Dropbox, like social networks, who can then build applications on top of the network knowing that all the privacy and security considerations are taken care of.” ALTHOUGH THE concept is difficult to grasp – for me at least – the basic theory behind it is that the network is the users themselves. So rather than uploading our files to data centres and servers that are prone to theft (and surveillance, as the Edward Snowden revelations demonstrated), when we join SAFE we become part of a direct peer-to-peer data storage and communications network. There is no need for a middle man. This is revolutionary stuff, if it works. There is also no fee for joining but a payment in kind: users donate their computing power and spare resources (the unused part of our hard drives) and in return they earn a cryptocurrency called Safecoin, which can be exchanged for access to services; those app developers are in turn rewarded in Safecoins which are earned according to the number of people using their applications; they can also be traded in for hard cash. If MaidSafe becam e the alternative internet of tomorrow, Facebook’s business model might well collapse if it lost the advertising revenue from people’s data it potentially wouldn’t be able to see. But it would have a new revenue stream through the amount of Safecoins it was able to earn, creating a subscription model instead. Lambert believes companies might choose to hedge their bets by offering their applications on the old internet and MaidSafe’s new one; but what it does do is offer a competitive advantage to services which might struggle to break into the top tier of its market. IN CLOUD storage terms, Lambert says, that would help the 40 or so providers who sit beneath the likes of Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. The really clever part, in security terms, is that any data we may eventually store in the SAFE network is encrypted, broken into chunks and