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Secure Data Hubs

By Manu Sporny, Dave Longley, Amy Guy, and Dmitri Zagidulin

Introduction

We store a significant amount of sensitive data online such as personally identifying information, trade secrets, family pictures, and customer information. The data that we store should be encrypted in transit and at rest but is often not protected in an appropriate manner. The Secure Data Hubs specification describes a privacy-respecting mechanism for storing, mirroring, indexing, sharing, and retrieving encrypted data at a storage provider. It is often useful when an individual or organization wants to protect data in a way that the storage provider cannot view, analyze, aggregate, or resell the data while also sharing the data in a fine-grained manner with collaborators. This approach also ensures that application data is portable and protected from storage provider data breaches.

Work in this Space

Before we dive into some of the things that Secure Data Hubs can do, it's important to understand where they fit into the existing ecosystem. Solid aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy. The Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF) has been working on a system called Identity Hubs, that are designed to securely store and share data. The Hyperledger Aries project is focused on a shared, reusable, interoperable tool kit designed for initiatives and solutions focused on creating, transmitting and storing verifiable digital credentials.

It is one of the goals of the Secure Data Hubs specification to find commonalities between these projects (and others) and attempt to standardize them. We know this effort will take years, and there will be many compromises along the way, but just like Verifiable Credentials and Decentralized Identifiers, we think the effort is vital to individual-controlled data storage and privacy.

The Problem

Modern Web and Internet applications tightly couple the application with the storage of application data.

This is a problem for at least four reasons:

  • It is unknown to you if the application provider is utilizing appropriate data protection practices. Often data is not encrypted and therefore susceptible to theft.
  • There are no standard interfaces, like an HTTPS API, for retrieving your data from the application and using a different application to modify your data.
  • It is often the case where the vendor of the application silos your data in a way that makes leaving the service provider unpalatable, which harms competition.
  • Access to your data is an all or nothing decision, enabling the application provider to analyze and sell your data to other entities (e.g., corporate espionage, surveillance capitalism).

A Solution

The simplest and most straightforward (and correct) solution is to decouple the application from storage.

This solution provides at least four benefits:

  • The data protection practices of the storage provider are known to you. All data is encrypted in transit and at rest, greatly reducing the risk of theft of your personal or corporate information.
  • The storage interfaces are standardized and known.
  • The risk of being locked into the platform is lowered because you control your storage, not the application provider.
  • Migrating data from one storage provider to another is a part of the design, achieving true data portability. Encryption at rest also ensures that the storage provider cannot read your data without your permission.

The authors of this paper are certainly not the first to suggest this approach. One could argue that Operating Systems vendors were the first to get this right in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. File systems of that era separated the storage between the application and the file system, enabling interoperability at a data file layer. Proprietary data formats were the lock in mechanism of choice in those days, but reverse engineering those formats provided a good counterbalance. It was only when global networked computing expanded that the ecosystem shifted to siloed data away from the customer's reach, largely due to the business models that drove the expansion of the Internet and the Web.

Applications

The solution above enables you and a friend to collaborate, using 3rd party applications, in a way where you bring your storage.

Collaboration at RWoT9

We seek to collaborate with the participants at the Vienna meet up, Rebooting the Web of Trust 9, and the ActivityPub community to explore how the design of Secure Data Hubs should be improved such that they can be applied to the tasks of storage of Verifiable Credentials in digital wallets, storage of ActivityPub messages in a secure and portable manner, and generalized storage of files in legacy, modern, and next generation Web and Internet applications.

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