Nym co-founder and Chelsea Manning discuss decentralization and privacy

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Users’ data privacy and the growing need for it to be protected is a topic that people worldwide are reminded of on a near daily basis. For example, just two days ago, on Dec. 11, Toyota warned customers about a potential data breach, stating that “sensitive personal and financial data was exposed in the attack.” 

Hacks, breaches and exploits happen so often that one could jokingly say that user data breaches rival the rugs and protocol exploits that crypto is infamous for. To name a notable few, there was the Kid Security parental control app hack, which resulted in 300 million data records being compromised.

Consumer genetics and research company 23andMe had a breach in October that put 20 million records at risk. Even MGM was hacked in September, and estimates suggest that the hack cost the production studio at least $100 million.

What’s clear is data is treasure, and hackers are the modern-day privateers. It’s also strikingly clear that corporations and governments struggle to protect themselves and their clients against data breaches, and because of this weakness, customers and citizens need to make the best effort possible to secure their own personal data.

One of the first and easiest steps for keeping some types of data safe from peering eyes is to use a virtual private network (VPN) when browsing the internet. But, even VPNs aren’t fully hackproof, and a handful of them actually covertly store user internet traffic records and share them with entities that users might prefer not to have access to such records. So, it falls to the consumer to again trust that their VPN of choice doesn’t disclose user data.

On Episode 25 of The Agenda podcast, hosts Ray Salmond and Jonathan DeYoung spoke with Nym co-founder and CEO Harry Halpin and Nym security and hardware consultant Chelsea Manning about how blockchain-based mixnets and other elements of decentralization can be used to strengthen VPNs and protect users’ personal data.

Surprise, most VPNs are centralized too

Thanks to clever marketing, a large number of people assume that VPNs protect you from nefarious snoopers lurking around on the internet, and they conceal your activities and user data from an assortment of vendors, entities and other organizations that observe users’ activities.

Halpin explained that on a VPN:

“You send all your data to someone else’s computer, and they see everything you do. They know everything you’re doing. So if you send your VPN data to ExpressVPN, NordVPN and Mullvad VPN, they know everything about you. They know your IP address. They connect to your billing information. They know what websites you’re going to. It’s actually kind of scary.”

Nym’s mixnets, on the other hand, send encrypted data across multiple servers, and Halpin explained that it adds “a bit of fake data” and at “each hop, a mixnet does what it says on the tin.”

“It mixes the data up. So it’s like each packet is like a card, and it like shuffles the pack of cards and then sends it to the next serve and sends it to the next server.”

Related: How to protect your privacy online

Mixnets have been around since the 1980s and rely on a large number of servers, which in some scenarios is less than ideal. According to Halpin, this is where Nym comes into play:

“The founding concept of Nym is, you take a blockchain, you record all the people that have volunteered their servers on the blockchain with their key material, their IP address and so forth, so users can find them. You give them some sort of reputation score so you know if they’re good or not. And then you pay them from an incentive system based on cryptocurrency.”