New Money Review podcast

New Money Review podcast

Big Brother hasn't won—yet

March 12, 2020

Governments and big tech firms now observe all our activity online and can both predict and influence our behaviour.

But some technologists are fighting back against the assumption that these unaccountable powers have the right to spy on us—and, in extremis, to take extrajudicial and violent actions against those they consider enemies.

In an exclusive interview for the latest New Money Review podcast, Dave Hrycyszyn, co-founder and chief technology officer at Nym, talks about the battle for internet privacy in an era of mass surveillance.

Hrycyszyn has founded, built and sold several technology companies. Most recently, he was chief executive at Chainspace, a company acquired by Facebook in 2019 as part of its controversial project to develop a new internet currency called Libra.

Late last summer Hrycyszyn joined Nym, a project focused on developing better privacy technology for users of the internet. According to Nym, the prospect of having any privacy online is disappearing at an alarming pace.

It points out that even privacy-focused digital messenger services like Signal, which encrypt the contents of chats, can do nothing to prevent metadata—which identify the timing, sender and receiver of a message—from being exploited by powerful third parties.

In a world of big data, says Nym, this metadata is even likely to be more valuable than the contents of messages itself.

This is because metadata can be used by sophisticated analytical systems, such as those run by government spy agencies and large tech firms—to determine the nature of your social relationships and thus predict your personal behaviour to a high degree of confidence.

According to Nym, the technology necessary to guarantee online privacy has remained underdeveloped because of historical limitations in computing, networking, research and funding.

But, the firm believes, it’s now possible to overcome these limits and deploy technology that provides strong privacy guarantees, avoids trusted third parties, and is resistant to surveillance.

In a wide-ranging interview with New Money Review editor Paul Amery, Hrycyszyn talks about the technological challenges involved in ensuring internet privacy, the pros and cons of full online anonymity and Nym’s ambitions to provide a broad range of privacy tools, starting with those for cryptocurrency transactions.

Here are some excerpts from the discussion:

Privacy and the internet

“Some of the privacy problems of the internet have been solved. Others are still to play for.”

“If you own the physical infrastructure that underlies the internet—the linked computers and the wires between them—you can spy on what’s going on. Technologies like SSL can put a layer of armour around that connection. But it doesn’t protect against metadata.”

“For the foreseeable future, a large fraction of our communication is going take place over computer networks. So the question of the balance to be struck between surveillance and privacy is going to be a live one for a very long time.”

Metadata and Big Brother

“The metadata is the set of information about the internet conversation: the time it took place, who it was sent from and to, and so on. You can infer things from the network traffic.”

“When the idea of a global passive adversary was first described to me, 15 to 20 years ago, I thought, ‘This is crazy, no one can possibly do that’. But as a result of the Snowden leaks, we know that this is in operation right now.”

“A privacy technology like TOR can be deanonymized if you can link both ends of the connection that’s being made between your computer and another computer. If a global passive adversary is recording the whole internet, it’s very clear who was talking to whom.”

“I’m not a fundamentalist about internet privacy. But after the Snowden revelations, I had a real sense that the social contract had been broken. And it had been broken by the global passive adversary. We find that people at the NSA are now saying things like, ‘We kill people based on metadata’.”

Fighting back with mixnets

“A mixnet is a way to defeat the global passive adversary. It chops up your network traffic into layer-encrypted packets that are sent to a mixnode to be mixed with other people’s packets, then to two more mixnodes to be mixed again. It’s the strongest network anonymity technology we know about.”

“If you don’t have network-level privacy, you’re lost from the beginning.”

On Nym

“Our first goal is to anonymise the world’s cryptocurrency transactions. That should give us enough of a base of users. But our ultimate ambitions are much bigger than that.”

“We are not tied to any particular blockchain. We’re attempting to build an incentivised infrastructure that will allow people, through micropayments, to pay for privacy-preserving systems.”

“Our token-anonymising technology could be used to anonymise things like medical records.”

“The idea is to have an incentivised system where, as a node operator, you are rewarded for taking actions that help people’s privacy, but you are penalised for poor quality of service.”