Chapter 9

2.7K 136 11


Andrew stared crookedly at David. David was swirling a make-believe mustache in his fingers and curling it at the tips. David looked totally deadpan as he explained, "I have a plan, sir. A cunning and subtle plan."

Picking up on the Blackadder reference, Andrew got himself into character. "As cunning as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, it'll have to wait. Let's get coffee."

They walked to a local coffee shop with marble floors and countertops. It had a sleek modern feel blended with a traditional hole-in-the-wall French coffee shop vibe. The owner was a classic Portland hipster. Trim, thirty-something, dressed to the nines with short dark hair slicked back with pomade. He had a thick black apron, and a grey short-sleeve button-down shirt that was just short enough to show off tattoos of old carnival scenes.

"Hey David," said Billy with a smile. "What would you like today?"

"Ummm, I'm not sure yet. Andrew, you order."

"I'll get a large vanilla latte." Andrew pulled out his credit card. He looked at Billy with half a smile. "And a banana."

Billy swiped Andrew's card and mumbled: "You know we don't sell bananas."

Andrew looked at David and asked: "Why is it that Starbucks has a whole case of bananas and all I can get here are croissants? Come to think of it, Starbucks probably has the healthiest drive-through fast-food anywhere."

Billy forced as polite a tone as he could. "So what can I get you?"

"Macchiato, please," said David. He turned back to Andrew. "Remember that link you sent me a few weeks ago, the one about encryption?"

"Yeah, the one you said was all hype."

"Well I figured it out. Only better."

"Oh?" Andrew leaned in and rested his arms on the marble countertop.

"You see, there are two big problems with the way everyone else is doing encrypted services. First, like I told you before, they're all centralized. No matter how good the encryption schemes are, the government can come in and tap the host servers' Internet connections and passively listen to every piece of information coming in and out."

Andrew looked at David, half confused, half excited. "Okay, but what does that matter if the information is all encrypted? The government will just be getting a bunch of junk."

"That brings us to the second problem: people assume that bad guys and governments can't break strong encryption."

David sat back and took a sip of his macchiato. If David had said this ten years ago, people would have called him crazy. Since Snowden's leaks, however, amateur conspiracy theorists were no longer the fringe, but the norm. The implications were staggering. Every email from Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Apple and everywhere else was being stored and snooped on by the United States government. Every chat and IM was archived indefinitely.

"I think I follow, but what can you do about it?"

"Even though we have to assume encryption can be broken, it doesn't mean it's cheap or easy to do. Just imagine, if you are a human being and you hear the sentence: 'Dick and Jane run up the hill,' you can understand it immediately. No processing power required. If it's slightly obfuscated, like if you remove the first letter of every word, it's harder to understand and takes a bit more brainpower, but you still get it. Ick nd ane un p he ill. But if it's just a bunch of jumbled letters and numbers, it'll take a while to puzzle out the solution."

"So did you invent a stronger type of encryption?"

"No. But if you make it unbearably loud with so many different voices, it makes finding the signal in the noise asymptotically difficult. Combine this with no central datacenter, make it totally distributed, and things get interesting. Every message travels encrypted to a bunch of other anonymous users of the app who then repeat the message encrypted yet again. Simultaneously, it sends out tons of bogus messages that are also re-encrypted and repeated by a bunch of people. The end result is that for every one encrypted message you send, anyone spying will have to sort through thousands of bogus ones. Potentially hundreds of thousands."

"Huh. I think you lost me."

"Spies and hackers and foreign governments can probably decrypt anything, but it's not easy and takes time, effort, and resources."

"Right."

"So if they can decrypt anything, let's give them so much fake encrypted noise that they have to search for a needle in a haystack."

"Got it, and the more people who use your app, the bigger the haystack."

"Bingo."

"David, this is a good idea."

"I know."

"No, I mean this is something that could change the world."

"Yeah," said David as he finished his macchiato. The last bittersweet swig made his throat warm and his stomach relax.

"You should build it," said Andrew almost as an afterthought.

"It's just a thought experiment. Nobody pays to use mobile chat apps today."

"It's way better than your jellyfish idea. How's that going anyhow? Sold anything yet?"

"Not yet, but I've got some ideas. This week's blog post is about jellyfish mating rituals."

The Term Sheet | Wattys 2016 WinnerRead this story for FREE!