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Datashards: secure storage primitives for the web

By Christopher Lemmer Webber, with help from Serge Wroclawski and Tom Marble


Over the last year we have been working on a general mechanism for URIs representing private, encrypted storage that can live in a variety of locations. We call this system "Datashards". This document is an attempt to lay out its rationale and a very high level overview of its design.

The problem

The world wide web has brought an unprecedented level of connectivity and information sharing to the world. Sadly, very little of this information survives. Websites go down often, and frequently it is only the portion of content that is accessible via the Internet Archive that lives on (and this too is limited to only public content). This leaves the web reliant on a single steward to preserve its history, and such content cannot even be reliably viewed via its original URI.

One way to improve this situation is to use content-addressed storage. Instead of distributing an HTTP url linking to a picture of a cat, we could distribute a hash of the picture of a cat, for example by using urn:sha256d:6nUldx59H40YLAS0ajkVJfx9k0pEX6fT-5HRDsMI8QA as the identifier. Now any server or client can store this picture of a cat. Any node can ask other nodes if they have this cat picture, and we will know if the cat picture they provide really is the same picture based on whether the hashes match. This is the basis of many peer-to-peer file storage systems.

Unfortunately, there are several problems with moving forward with such a simple content-addressed system:

  • Any data store can inspect and observe all contents, so privacy does not exist on this layer.
  • This is even worse in a peer to peer system, because then the network cannot help spread content without being able to see all content. If Carlos wants to send Bob a sappy love letter, how can he do so without the entire network being able to peek into their private life?
  • This ability to see the content you are helping to distribute is also a liability; a node wishing to be a good citizen and helping distribute content along the network may find that it is storing undesirable material in the clear. Sometimes it is best to know less.

Additionally, Datashards provides universal names, but a variety of distribution/storage systems, from a local filesystem to a global distributed hashtable to sneakernet to one-off REST endpoints, all depending on need and threat analysis. The names representing both shards and access capabilities remain the same regardless of storage and distribution protocol.

Introducing Datashards

Datashard capabilities (or Datashard ocaps) are very similar to the forementioned hash-based URNs and do, in fact, use content addressing under the hood. Datashard capabilities are valid URIs, and thus are valid link targets for usage with the world wide web.

The heart of Datashard ocaps comes from chopping up and symmetrically encrypting content into uniform-sized chunks/shards are content-addressed "shard URNs". The shards may be distributed amongst storage and distribution providers without knowledge by those parties as to what the contents contain. Only participants who have been explicitly delivered a Datashard capability can assemble and transform these shards into meaningful content.

Datashard capabilities come in two flavors (and two new URI schemes):

  • idsc: (Immutable DataShard Capability) for fixed/immutable content. Builds on shard URNs.
  • mdsc: (Mutable DataShard Capability) for mutable/updateable content. Builds on Immutable Datashard Capabilities.

Due to the nature of distributed updates, mdsc: capabilities have some synchronization challenges that idsc: capabilities do not. Nonetheless, updates are desirable and are thus provided in the system.


Datashards has been in development for the last year as part of the Spritely project, and prototype implementations exist and function. The original implementations come from the Spritely Magenc and Spritely Crystal demos (for the immutable and mutable storage concepts respectively), and were shown in application towards the federated social web in the Spritely Golem demo. Magenc was in fact originally a RWoT submission and has been iterated on since that time.

However, the ideas in Datashards are not original. Most ideas come from Tahoe LAFS, Freenet, and libchop. The main contribution of Datashards is distilling and simplifying these designs into new URI schemes which can be used on the general world wide web.

We believe Datashards is very easy to implement, and a specification/implementation guide is forthcoming.

Datashard URIs

The below explanations are high level summaries; for details see the Spritely Magenc and Spritely Crystal writeups.

TODO: Those repositories are out of date/sync with the below explanations. Convert those documents to a shared Datashards repository which follows the new URI patterns explained below.

Shard URNs

Shard URNs follow the familiar notation of:


For example:


These are for the encrypted fixed-size shards. All shards are restricted to a fixed size of 32 kilobytes. Thus, stores and delivery relays may be set up to accept and deliver 32 kilobyte shards corresponding to these hashes.

The convention of having objects be assembled from uniform-sized shards prevents a length-of-file attack, where the specific content stored is inferred from the file length.

TODO: Do we want to use the hashlink spec instead? CBOR seems like overhead but convergence might be good.

IDSC: Immutable Datashard Capabilities

Immutable content is represented by the following URI convention:


Here is an example IDSC URI:


The components of such a URI can be broken down as follows:

  • suite-id: A string of characters representing the "suite" of encryption protocols used by this IDSC. In the above example, the value is 0p, for the prototype 0th suite, which uses sha256d hashes (double application of sha256 to prevent length extension attacks) for content and aes-ctr for encryption. In the future there will be other cryptographic suites available which combine specific cryptographic algorithms in a way believed to be safe.
  • manifest-hash: The base64 encoded (sans padding) hash of the initial/manifest shard. Converted to a Shard URN before retrieval; in the example above this would be converted to urn:sha256d:X74UbU3NoLTA_Nupi8DhaJ_oQpQ95KFukMAkJJotKgo
  • encryption-key: The base64 encoded (sans padding) symmetric key used to decrypt the retrieved shards, including the manifest. A unique key is generated for every IDSC upload.

Once the initial shard is decrypted upon being retrieved. The initial shard is typed as either:

  • raw if small enough (less than ~32kb), in which case the entire file's contents are contained
  • manifest otherwise, in which case the actual shards to be retrieved is listed (if the manifest is too large, this object may itself chain to another manifest object until all shards are conveyed).

Each object retrieved is decrypted by the symmetric key. (An initialization vector is also procedurally generated for each shard retrieved; however, we are glossing over those details for the sake of this writeup.) Thus, while entities may request nodes to store and distribute shards, only the entities that have been explicitly given an IDSC capability may read its contents.

MDSC: Mutable Datashard Capabilities

MDSC URIs technically point to immutable IDSC revisions under the hood, but may be incrementally updated, with no conflict prevention guarantee. (Approximation of such guarantees may be modeled via eventual consistency systems if desired, however.) Each MDSC is generated from a unique verification/signature (aka public/private) asymmetric keypair, and in fact the verification component of the identifier is the location of the verification key. In addition to the content-addressed shard store described previously, a new source of information is added for mutable capabilities: registries, which track authorized revisions. When generating a new version of an MDSC referenced object, writers generate and sign a new certificate, then deliver to registries who may then verify and further distribute that certificate to requesting parties.

There are three access levels of MDSC capabilities:

  • verify-only caps (aka verify caps): Can verify that the metadata describing a revision is an authorized revision, even though it can't read the revision's contents or write new authorized revisions. This is the only crystal capability that the registries know about; we never share read or write capabilities with registries.
  • read caps (aka verify-read caps): Can verify that a revision is valid, and can read the associated contents, but can't write out new authorized revisions. Can be transformed into a verify-only cap.
  • read-write caps (aka verify-read-write caps): Can verify revisions, read the contents described by revisions, and can even write new authorized revisions. Can be transformed into a read cap or verify-only cap. Users holding a read-write cap should be very careful about handing these out and coordinating writes.

Each revision is a canonicalized document which signs off on an incrementing revision number, an encrypted idsc: URI representing the revision, and an initialization vector used to encrypt the location. Since the location is encrypted, registries can verify that the document represents a new revision, but being only in possession of the verify capability, cannot actually discover the contents without access to the read capability.

The structure of a MDSC capability URI is:


(TODO: This might be simplified if we move to elliptic curve keys; then we don't need to put both the verify-key-hash and the verify-key-enckey in the URI, we can just put the entire public key.)

The components of MDSC URIs are:

  • access-level: Either v for verify, r for read-verify, or w for read-write-verify.
  • suite-id: A string of characters representing the "suite" of encryption protocols used by this IDSC. In the above examples, the value is 0p, for the prototype 0th suite, which uses a combination of RSA public/private keypairs for the verify/write keys, the 0p IDSC suite for looking up the verification key, and sha256 to convert a write key to a read key.
  • keydata-hash and keydata-enckey: Used to look up the keydata for this MDSC object, which when retrieved contains the verification key. (TODO: If we switch to elliptic curve cryptography, we can simplify this to one component which is just the public key directly.)
  • read-key: If this is a read-verify ocap, provides the symmetric key used to decrypt the location of the object.
  • write-decryption-key: If this is a read-write-verify ocap, this is used to retrieve the write key from the keydata mentioned above. (TODO: Can also be simplified by embedding directly if using elliptic curve cryptography.) Can be hashed to generate the read key.
  • version-num: Incrementing base-10 encoded integer used to sequentially order revisions, or identify one or a range of revisions matching that number.
  • version-hash: Since it is technically possible to issue multiple version numbers matching a revision, this allows specifying a precise version (the hash of the certificate).

Some examples of MDSC capability URIs:

# verify ocap
# verify-read ocap
# verify-read ocap for revision 1
# verify-read ocap for revision 1, specific hash
# verify-read-write ocap

As stated before, there is no guarantee that multiple conflicting revisions won't be issued, or that a user requesting the latest revision will get the absolutely latest version. However, a specific revision can be more explicitly marked by specifying the version-num and version-hash.

Distribution and storage mechanisms

Datashards does not itself specify storage or distribution mechanisms. However, a variety of approaches are possible.

IDSC content stores

Foundational operations

The foundational operations for a content store endpoint is:

  • store-shard: Accepts as its body a shard of no more and no less than 32 kilobytes. It returns the Shard URN that it thinks this data is represented by that data.
  • get-shard: Is queried for a Shard URN and in its response body returns what should be the data representing that data. Raises the appropriate "Not Found" error if it can't find it (though the store may itself recursively search the network for that content if appropriate).

In both cases the client MUST verify that the hash and the contents match what the server claim they are.

Directed storage systems

  • Local storage: a local, on-disk or in-memory key-value store may be used to store hashes. May be read-only, write-only, or read-write.
  • Remote storage: an endpoint may be provided (whether it be via HTTP or whatever else) using a key-value lookup and storage mechanism. May be read-only, write-only, or read-write.
    • A user's read-write storage endpoint for just their own data.
    • A cluster of read-write storage endpoints, perhaps facilitated by a local abstract endpoint that pushes and pulls content from the cluster.
    • Alice stores content on her server via her read-write endpoint, Alice's server sends an update to Bob's server providing an IDSC URI and a read-only endpoint for retrieving that content, and now Bob's server retrieves that content.

Global storage systems

Multiple paths to global storage systems are possible:

  • A DHT such as Kademlia
  • Gossip protocols
  • Etc.
  1. Advisement against mixing with decrypted CAS nodes.

    For a global storage system, it is strongly advised to NOT reuse an existing content-addressed system such as IPFS. While this is absolutely possible, the liability considerations for being a node operator are dramatically more complicated if unencrypted content is conventionally stored alongside encrypted content. While it is also not possible to consistently programmatically detect which content is decrypted and which content is not, setting up new networks intentionally built for the purpose of never having such content on them should reduce the amount of relevant overlap.

  2. "Malicious content" lists

    It is possible that in building such a global system, a known list of "malicious content shards" becomes available or strongly encouraged to subscribe to, in which case such nodes might choose to not distribute or accept these shards. Since referring to shards is possible without revealing their contents, it is possible to do so without constructing an effective "shopping list" for data which is encrypted. However, following any such list will have to be based on a trust (or coercive) relationship between that node and the list-supplying-party.

  3. Eventual weakening of encryption

    One thing we cannot fully prevent is the possibility that today's robust encryption algorithms will weaken over time. While any transmitted content may be retained and eventually decoded, intentionally storing in a system designed to keep content around for a long time means that eventually, should weaknesses in the underlying cryptography be found, such secrets will be easier to access. As such, it may often be more desirable to use directed storage and transmission than global storage and transmission.

    That said, it may be possible to take steps such as mixing encryption mechanisms that might provide a possibility that secrets will remain secrets from prying eyes for longer. See the Tahoe-LAFS One Hundred Year Cryptography for ideas.

MDSC revision registries

Foundational operations

A registry consists of two foundational operation, and one optional operation.

  • add-revision: Submits a signed revision certificate in union with the verification capability to be updated. The submitting client MUST NOT submit a capability with read or write access; only verification-only capabilities are allowed. The server MUST then dereference the keydata and verify that it is a valid revision. The server may then update its table of known revisions with this revision.
  • get-known-revisions: Given a verification capability, returns an ordered set of all known good revisions, sorted first by revision number and then the specific revision hash. Specifying a more precise verification capability narrows the set returned; specifying a version-num returns only revisions matching that version-num whereas specifying both a version-num and version-hash specifies an exact commit. The client MUST verify that all revisions have authorized signatures and that revision numbers and version hashes match appropriately.

Optionally, registries may also support:

  • get-store: Suggests a content store by which one may retrieve IDSC objects (including the keydata in the present design).

Directed registries

As with IDSC stores, registries can be local or remote.

The general patterns are the same as with IDSC stores, with the additional complexity of potential conflicting updates (especially in the case of multiple writers).

Global registries

Globally-facing registries may exist and cooperate with other registries by sharing information, for example by using a gossip protocol. Again, there are no guarantees that a registry has or is conveying the absolutely latest revisions of an MDSC object.

Cooperatively avoiding write conflicts

Malicious write conflicts are difficult to deal with and structurally avoid. However, it is feasible to cooperatively reduce the amount that write conflicts occur in case of multiple writers.

Let's say that Alice and Bob are both stewards of an MDSC object. If both of them push an update 3 before seeing each others' updates, there will be a conflict as to which is the official update number 3. However, Alice and Bob could voluntarily choose to always first push updates to a special cooperative registry specifically built for this task. In most systems, registries should record and propagate any conflicts they discover. However, in this coordination registry, if either Alice or Bob tries pushing an update for a revision number that the coordination registry has already seen, the server will reject the update with an error message that allows Alice or Bob to be informed so that they can resolve the conflict before pushing it out to the wider network.

In contrast to existing systems


IPFS is a popular content addressed store. IPFS's default mode is to store unencrypted content.

In contrast, Datashards provides support for private distribution. Datashards shards are opaque not only to make disclosure of contents an intentional act but also to reduce the burden of participants hoping to help the network. Node operators should be able to help distribute content without being liable for their contents.

For this reason, while a global Datashards store could be bootstrapped very quickly by using IPFS as the backend, it is better to start out with a global distribution network that simply does not have unencrypted content as its default.


Tahoe-LAFS is an incredible project and by far the greatest source of inspiration for Datashards' content-addressed-but-private design. The primary differences between Tahoe and Datashards are:

  • Tahoe is more mature and established than Datashards and has probably accounted for many rough edges we have yet to encounter.
  • Tahoe is currently mostly built for deployment to an intentionally constructed cluster of nodes (akin to the "directed" stores/registries described above) and as of yet does not support the option for global storage and distribution of content. In contrast, Datashards does not specify and is not tied to any specific storage or distribution mechanism.
  • Tahoe's URIs aren't constructed to be of "general use" on the web the same way that http or hash-based urn schemes are.
  • Tahoe provides some support for diff-based updates, which do not yet exist in MDSC (but could).
  • Tahoe supports pairwise redundancy in case of the loss of some chunks/shards, at some additional storage cost.


Freenet pioneered many of the ideas used by both Tahoe and Datashards. The primary differences between Freenet and Datashards are:

  • Freenet does not have and is not presently aiming for a variety of implementations or an effort to standardize its architecture.
  • Freenet supports one "global" storage and routing architecture (though rooted in small world networks) and is very tied to that design. In contrast, Datashards does not specify and is not tied to any specific storage or distribution mechanism.
  • Freenet supports pairwise redundancy in case of the loss of some chunks/shards, at some additional storage cost.

Where to from here?

  • Datashards has not yet undergone a security audit; we would like to have one if possible.
  • While some prototype applications utilizing Datashards have been built, we would like more user-facing applications, including:
    • Real-world usage by distributed social networks
    • Game asset storage
    • Free Libre and Open Source software and cultural distribution
  • Currently the only implementation is in Racket, but another implementation is currently underway in Python. We would love to see implementations in as many languages as possible.
  • We do not yet have any global mechanisms built yet for the Datashards content addressed stores and registries. We are considering building prototypes of these based on Kademlia and gossip protocols.
  • Currently the IDSC structure does not support shard parity, but we have ideas on how to accomplish this if desired.
  • Metadata is not supported yet and objects follow the basic "bag of bytes" metaphor. Would it be better or worse to add support for metadata? We don't know.
  • The initial implementation of MDSC was built on RSA. However, many components of it (and their explanation) would be greatly simplified by using elliptic curve cryptography, because the smaller keysize could mean that directly embedding the keys is feasible.
  • A step-by-step writeup of the algorithms used by Datashards needs to be written.
  • A test suite would be useful.
  • We would like to submit Datashards for standardization, pending enough implementations.
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