For many years, Apple’s Steve Jobs used the Macworld expo in San Francisco to launch the company’s most innovative products. The release of gadgets such as the iPhone into the creative ferment of Silicon Valley gave rise to booming economies of accessories and apps. Yet this year, the most palpable inspiration among Macworld’s product developers is coming from a very different sort of tech guru: The National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
One of the most prominent booths at Macworld, which opened on Wednesday and runs through Saturday, belongs to iDrive, a company that recently erected nine billboards around San Francisco to tout its “NSA-proof cloud backup.” Unlike other cloud sites such as Google Drive or DropBox, iDrive’s software helps users encrypt their data on their own mobile devices or computers using a private key known only to them. Then the encrypted data is automatically transmitted to and stored on the company’s servers. In the event of a subpoena by the NSA, “we can turn over the data but we can’t do anything with it because the key is not known to us,” iDrive CEO Raghu Kulkarni told me. “That is what makes it NSA-proof.”
In the months since the Snowden leaks, iDrive’s signups have jumped 20 percent, Kulkami says.
Of course, any claim of total invincibility to the NSA ought to be viewed with skepticism. The spy agency is building a quantum computer supposedly capable of breaking virtually all kinds of encryption and can often circumvent solid encryption anyway using other kinds of hacking. Oh, and by the way, the NSA likes to target people that it thinks have something to hide.
This afternoon at Macworld, Parker Higgins of the Electronic Frontier Foundation will moderate a panel of security firms and tech journalists called “The NSA And You.”
The challenges of protecting data from dragnet surveillance haven’t stopped other Macworld exhibitors from working the NSA angle. Take the “personal cloud” devices Transporter and My Cloud, for example. Designed for people who don’t trust anyone except themselves to back up or store their data, they replace the cloud with a two- to four-terabyte hard drive that sits on a desk. Yet this personal cloud still allows for all the convenience and functionality of the conventional cloud, including online access from any device and sharing large files with others via links.
Elke Larson, an exhibitor for My Cloud, told me that protection from the NSA “is a point that people bring up a lot” when discussing the product. Unlike iDrive, which doesn’t allow sharing from encrypted accounts, the personal cloud devices also enable users to more easily swap data.
“Our cloud is completely private,” said Transporter exhibitor Brett Best, whose booth overflowed with interested visitors. “You have complete control of your files and folders, and you know where they are.”
“Whereas DropBox,” he went on, “shoot, the government goes and accesses that stuff all the time.”
For what it’s worth, Best went on to claim that Transporter, which got off the ground with the help of $260,000 from Kickstarter, is more NSA-proof than My Cloud because My Cloud stores some of its users’ metadata, such as file names, but “we don’t store any of that.” (A My Cloud rep said he’d never heard that claim).
Not that any of this will matter if government investigators were to hack directly into your computer. In that event, you might wish you’d installed the app Hider 2, due to launch in few days from the company MacPaw. At the click of a button, it allows you to encrypt and hide (or decrypt and unhide) files on your computer. In a demo of the app at the company’s Macworld booth, some files were cheekily tagged “NSA.”
Apple’s App Store would not certify Hider 2, CEO Oleksandr Kosovan told me, until it was approved by… the NSA. “If the NSA does have some super-powered quantum computer,” he added, “they may get access to the data, but that is very unlikely.”
But that’s not the only threat for Hider 2 users. MacPaw is based in Kiev, Ukraine. So if Russian tanks roll over the border tomorrow, you may need to start worrying about protecting your Bitcoins and LOLcats from the Federal Security Service.