Redesigning the internet to protect user privacy
When an American researcher imagined a new way to bolster internet privacy (an online system built on 'mix-nets' that would block eavesdroppers from accessing information about who was communicating with whom, and what they were saying), his vision remained on the fringe for decades. But now, an EU-funded project has invented a way to use his idea to protect Europeans' data online.
© Coloures-Pic #107434239 source: stock.adobe.com 2019
The past decade has been a wake-up call to internet users. Scandal after scandal has revealed personal information online can be exploited. As homes and workplaces begin to be digitised by the internet of things, safeguarding our privacy has never been so important.
This is not a new concern. As long ago as the early 1980s, researchers were considering how to bolster online security. In the US, a cryptographer called David Chaum imagined a more private internet built on mixed networks or mix-nets an online system that would block eavesdroppers from accessing information about who was communicating with whom, and what they were saying.
For decades, Chaums idea existed mostly in theory, ignored by internet services and application developers. But researchers behind the EU-funded PANORAMIX project decided to bring his vision to life for the first time. By inventing technology that would ensure the reliability of mix-nets, the team were able to demonstrate how Chaums concept could be a solution for todays online privacy concerns.
Mix-net was something that, on paper, experts thought was wonderful for privacy; we made a decisive step towards making it real for end-users, says project coordinator Aggelos Kiayias of the University of Edinburgh. With that idea, we have created the foundations for a critical technological infrastructure that can guarantee strong privacy for European users and organisations.
Redesigning the internet
For Kiayias, redesigning the way the internet works is crucial to safeguarding Europeans fundamental right to privacy. The internet was not designed with privacy and anonymity in mind, and so who you are communicating with and what you are saying may be seen by network observers unless specific measures are taken, he says. If the internets infrastructure has trapdoors then sooner or later, someone will exploit them.
The PANORAMIX project hopes to eliminate those opportunities using mix-nets. The technology is designed to be an improvement to end-to-end encryption the well-known security method used by popular apps such as WhatsApp to keep messages private.
While end-to-end encryption keeps the content of messages private, third parties can still track communication metadata, such as who is communicating with whom, how often and for how long. But mix-net technology shuffles this metadata via a network of servers, making individual messages impossible to trace.
Privacy in practice
To demonstrate the effectiveness of mix-nets, the PANORAMIX team which spanned academia, industry and the third sector developed a range of applications to showcase how the technology could be used to protect sensitive user data in a variety of scenarios.
With European partners, researchers developed an electronic voting app, a private messaging app and an app to collect anonymous data. These efforts have been so successful they are all already in use. The e-voting platform Zeus, for example, has been used in around 400 elections, including elections to appoint party candidates for the last European Parliament elections and to elect senior positions to Greek universities.
Members of PANORAMIX have also started a spin-off company, Switzerland-based Nym Technologies, which has already received EUR 2.5 million in seed funding to pursue research into how mix-net technology can be used in a wider array of applications, including online payments.
For Kiayias, this momentum is emblematic of the projects legacy. Mix-nets facilitate a communication infrastructure with an unprecedented level of security and privacy, he says. And the PANORAMIX project made a huge step forward in bringing this technology closer to wider adoption.