The internet is not fit for purpose. If it was designed today from nothing, would it use the client-server model? Absolutely not. There have been far too many personal and sensitive online records stolen (1.1 billion in 2014 alone) for anyone to give the internet an architecture as vulnerable as the one it's saddled with.
So why not just change it? One company thinks it's cracked it with an open-source algorithm that crowdsources the internet, making data impossible to hack.
What's wrong with the internet?
It's broken. "Data is extremely hard to secure," says Nick Lambert, Chief Operating Officer at Troon, Scotland-based MaidSafe, who adds that the dominant business model of advertising and surveillance is, by its very nature, a centralising force. That'll be Google and Facebook et al, who give us free services in return for selling our information to advertisers. Privacy, once a non-issue, is increasingly important to us all.
"We're all putting a lot of value and content into the internet, but the benefit of all of this information is centralised around these enormous companies who are merely aggregating it, not creating it," says Lambert of the 'winner takes all' economic model.
Even the so-called 'sharing economy' innovators like Uber are getting more out of the system than their employees.
So what's the solution?
Decentralise it completely by crowdsourcing the cloud. That's the idea behind MaidSafe's SAFE (Secure Access For Everyone) Network. "What we're creating is an infrastructure – it's up to third parties to develop apps," says Lambert, before explaining how a Dropbox-style app would work using the SAFE Network.
"When a file is saved into a virtual file system, the network splits the file into chunks, randomises those chunks, and encrypts each one with bits of the other chunks, then disperses them to all the nodes on the network," explains Lambert.
We're not talking about new hardware here – the SAFE Network works on all existing cables, routers and switches. It all operates on the IP layer of the internet, from web services up through the application layer. Effectively it replaces web servers and data centres.
"The SAFE Network software passes that job down to the spare computing resources of all the users of the network," says Lambert. Users download the software, it connects all the users together, and since all the encrypted fragments of all files are distributed across all users' computers, data is secure precisely because it's unintelligible, and it doesn't reside in one place. In fact, no-one knows where it is – that's the beauty of it.
If the concept of a network that relies on encrypted and randomised fragments of ones and zeros distributed across millions of computers is hard to get your head around, it's a model that's already gaining traction elsewhere.
"We're doing a similar thing for data that Bitcoin is doing for trade," says Lambert. "There is no-one in the middle – nobody can be stopped in creating an account … MaidSafe has no idea who its users are."
This system of self-authentication means that when someone uploads a document, only they can reconstitute it with a PIN and password; there are no servers at all on this network. In the current model of the internet and the cloud, it's companies like Dropbox that hold the encryption keys for its users, not document creators.
What if a computer is switched off?
Security may be absolute, but end-points are still an issue – if someone switches off a computer, surely the SAFE Network concept falls apart? Actually, no. As well as everything being client-side, the data locations are constantly changing – there are a minimum number of four copies of all data on the network at any one time, and if one node goes off, within 20 milliseconds the network will relocate all of that encrypted data to a node it knows to be online.
That's complex, but the result is very strong security – instead of a fortress approach, data is dispersed, and constantly on the move.