The Privacy Business

Since the Snowden leaks in 2013, a lot of people have gotten into privacy. But not all of them are in it for the right reasons.

There has been a growing trend in the development and marketing of privacy tools and networks that work in the same way as mundane corporations. And their main motive is money. How can they make a cash cow out of privacy?

Hence the privacy business.

Each of these businesses start out with individuals who form teams and grow into a small company. They release their tools and services in the name of privacy. They have Github repos, Reddit accounts, HN accounts, Twitter accounts, and Facebook accounts. They release alpha versions of the front-end software with early access or invite only access, then beta releases, then the finalized major releases. Their goal is to create a large following and dedicated user base, before they go rogue and turn their backs on their loyal users. The entire process may take anywhere from 2-5 years, but they are patient. In the end, they know they can make enough money to retire, once they sell out.

If their project fails to gain momentum and a large following, they will drop it and disappear, onto the next cash cow, something they can exploit for money.

If they offer premium services, they are likely to stick to the business. But if they offer completely free services, then it’s highly likely that, at some point, they will sell out to some corporation for the ultimate buck. Some people call it acquihire, others call it joining; I call it selling out.

Over the years, I’ve come across several “privacy” services, that ended up either shutting down or selling out. And I’ve become very cautious when any “entrepreneur” shows up with some privacy-oriented services. It makes me questions what their motives are, how long they plan to stay open, when they’re going to sell out, and for how much.

The privacy diaspora is a murky swamp on the outskirts of the internet. Just when you thought you were absolutely safe, you might wake up to a rude surprise.

I’m going to conclude this with the perfect example of Keybase. Keybase is an encryption service that was launched in 2014. In the alpha stage, it was invite-only. I remember signing up for an invite and waiting for a few days before receiving one a few years ago.

On 7th May 2020, Keybase announced that it had been acquired by Zoom. Anyone who keeps in touch with the latest Tech news would know just how bad Zoom really is. As I scrolled through hundreds of surprised reactions from loyal users on HN and Reddit, I realized none of us had bothered to do our research. We just followed the hype from the Tech media. And the Tech media is not a good source of information for a privacy enthusiast.

Looking at the Keybase blog, I see exactly how Keybase raised their initial $10.8M investment. And I can’t recognize any of the names as related to the privacy world. The Stellar wallets and free crypto was the final attempt to increase their user base before they sold out. Why would any small company that provides free services (not to forget the 250GB free storage!) give out $119M to their users?

Looking through the members of the Keybase team, only one of them had a Mastodon account. I doubt any of the others had bothered to look up the Fediverse much less join it. This is why the Fediverse was by large, left out of the Keybase user accounts verification.

The background of the founding members of Keybase shows that they were working with OkCupid before starting Keybase. Since OkCupid is a commercialized dating service with a terrible privacy history, this doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the Keybase founding team.

I’m disappointed in myself. Instead of doing my research and questioning the motives of the company that provided a unique service for free, I allowed myself to be fooled by the mainstream Tech journalists. What do the mainstream tech journalists know about the privacy world? Nothing! I’m glad I stopped wasting my time reading tech news. Tech news is basically a huge advertising and marketing medium for the companies that violate their users privacy even after being paid hundreds and thousands of dollars.

I’m going to delete my Keybase account before midnight. The next time some company comes along with some innovative privacy services, I’m going to get up their arse with a microscope and release a full-fledged detailed review of their business.