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.

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Countries
Countries
  Algeria
  Argentina
  Australia
  Austria
  Bangladesh
  Belarus
  Belgium
  Benin
  Bolivia
  Bosnia and Herzegovina
  Brazil
  Bulgaria
  Burkina Faso
  Cambodia
  Cameroon
  Canada
  Cape Verde
  Chile
  China
  Colombia
  Costa Rica
  Croatia
  Cyprus
  Czechia
  Denmark
  Ecuador
  Egypt
  Estonia
  Ethiopia
  Faroe Islands
  Finland
  France
  French Polynesia
  Georgia


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Published: 5 December 2019  
Related theme(s) and subtheme(s)
Information societyInformation technology  |  Internet  |  Telecommunications
Innovation
Research policyHorizon 2020
SMEs
Security
Countries involved in the project described in the article
Belgium  |  Estonia  |  Germany  |  Greece  |  Netherlands  |  United Kingdom
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Redesigning the internet to protect user privacy

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© 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, Chaum’s 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 Chaum’s concept could be a solution for today’s 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 internet’s 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 project’s 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.’

Project details

  • Project acronym: PANORAMIX
  • Participants: United Kingdom (Coordinator), Estonia, Belgium, Greece, Germany, Netherlands
  • Project N°: 653497
  • Total costs: € 4 459 711
  • EU contribution: € 3 796 625
  • Duration: September 2015 to January 2019

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