The Report

Hide sensitive cloud-stored files from prying eyes

Hide sensitive cloud-stored files from prying eyes

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An Australian startup called Lockbox aims to make the cloud a safer place to share files.

The cloud: the ubiquitous nowhere-but-everywhere space where many of us keep and share all things digital. As adoption progresses, so does the tension between convenience and privacy. We want to share our personal information, but we want to do it securely. The trouble is, there is new information available almost daily about the vulnerability of our digital lives.

In the true spirit of the tech industry, many startups are rising to address the cause of privacy. You don't have to look far to find services that mask your identity (see Burner or Privacy Safe, among others). Now, an Australian startup, Lockbox, is joining a cohort of cloud storage services (like Sharefile and even Dropbox and Box) that are tackling sharing and storing privacy in the cloud. Trust in the vendor is a big dilemma in this category, so Lockbox is trying to set itself apart by assuring its users that they aren't just relying on blind trust in the company to ensure their files are safe.

"This was the dilemma that Lockbox chose to solve," says Lockbox CEO Peter Long. "The realization was this could only be achieved by a decentralized client-side encryption with strong key management."

That was in 2008, when no one thought that client-side encryption or key management could be achieved on the cloud. Flash forward to 2013: not only is this possible, but Lockbox provides user-to-user encryption, so information can remain secure and private all the time, whether it's being shared or being stored, another difference between Lockbox and some competitors.

The Lockbox technology works in the cloud and across mobile devices. Unlike other companies, not even Lockbox employees have access to the files shared: the data is encrypted on the source computer and remains so until the file is downloaded and unlocked with encryption keys, which aren't stored in the cloud either.

Lockbox's products include the Client Portal and Lockbox for iPad, which offer a true digital vault capacity for sharing of sensitive files, Long says. In the future, the technologies may include the ability to secure more popular file sharing services, providing scalable privacy to a range of applications, but for now Lockbox is its own sharing service. The technology works by compressing, encrypting and digitally signing each file before it enters the cloud, and ensuring that the only people who can decrypt and read are those who are invited to do so. Lockbox can't read them, and neither can the cloud provider where the file is stored.

Lockbox's main customers are financial institutions, brokerage, accounting and law firms that are attracted to the idea of the cloud, but require secure and encrypted document sharing. Client Portal was designed for businesses, small or large, to embed on their Web site. It acts as a repository that businesses can use to transfer and exchange files with their clients or business partners. It also serves another purpose: building visibility for Lockbox, and promoting the further use of the service of that business. The link to Lockbox can be branded with the company's logo.

For businesses, the service brings stronger authentication and vetting, better end-to-end privacy and reduced risk for administrators. Lockbox provides proof of where a file originated as well as assurance against tampering. For a company's employees or customers, the risks of administrator abuse, inadvertent disclosure and hacking are decreased.

Other cloud services offer encryption, but not on the client side. Lockbox differs from services like Dropbox or Box in that the other two companies only offer encryption when the file is being sent to the cloud, Long says. In addition, once files are at rest in the cloud with Dropbox or Box, they are no longer encrypted, leaving them more vulnerable, he says.

"Lockbox philosophically believes that your content or data is yours and yours only," Long notes. "You should have the right and the technology available to you to control that data and to manage who sees the data you are willing to share. No middle man or third party involved or required."

This stance inspired development of the client-side Lockbox "Locks and Keys" product, which allows any user total control over their own content: they can protect their own data with encryption, control who has access to it with "keys," and safely use the cloud on their own. "This is a very fundamental paradigm shift that is all about giving power back to a user and rebalancing the alarming trend of recent times that has seen all content being by default not private," Long adds.

Lockbox offers annual or monthly plans, and a full range of installation, training and hosting services. The first 30 days of Client Portal are free. After that, the pricing varies. For example, for 100 users and 45 gigabytes of data (the biggest plan) the cost is $1,900 per year, or $190 per month.

With more attention being paid to our growing loss of privacy, services like Lockbox can only become more relevant. "The last couple of months have truly highlighted in a very compelling way the dramatic loss of privacy that has now pervaded our every day lives," Long says. "We will see an increasing realization and focus on rebalancing that loss of privacy."

(Image: Courtesy of Photos.com/Maksim Kabakou)

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure