June 24, 2010

Microsoft developing a mobile social network that minimizes privacy concerns

Microsoft is developing a mobile social network that aims to address the ever increasing criticism heaped upon the presently popular and profitable Facebook model of privacy. According to Technology Review, Researchers at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley are developing a mobile network that enables users to share media without sharing that information with the central server. When you upload data, it gets encrypted and given a lost of people that are able to access that data. Those people can then decrypt and view the data. Iqbal Mohomed, a researcher involved in the project, explains why this protects privacy. "With Contrail, the central location doesn't ever know my information, or what particular users care about--it just sees encrypted stuff to pass on." Contrail also requires you to opt-in to receive updates from friends. Unlike Facebook, which sends you everything unless you opt out, Contrail will actively engage the user in privacy management from the very beginning. When only you can decide what content is pushed down to your account, managing your social connections becomes a lot easier.

Contrail is a mobile network that will run on the Windows Azure cloud computing platform, and it will be focused on the smartphone experience. Data is sent directly to devices, and your phone doesn't simply act as a portal to an account in the cloud, like the Facebook app for smartphones. The account and the data resides on your phone. Your social connections are all mobile phones, and unique encryption keys for encrypting and decrypting data are stored on the phone, locally.

In a lot of ways, Contrail seems like a user-friendly version of Diaspora*, the grass-roots social network that raised a significant amount of money to start a network that hides information from central servers by having users set up privately hosted file servers that connect to other servers via the Diaspora* network. Both platforms feature a centralized system that doesn't see incoming or outgoing data, and both depend on local storage. The biggest difference is the mobile aspect of Contrail, which obviates the need for technical ability as far as setting up a web server goes. It will definitely be interesting to see how the dynamic unfolds between those two.

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