Who can you trust to protect your data? The company you don’t need to trust, says ZebuJackie Gill - February 13, 2020
It’s been called the biggest lie on the internet (which says a lot): “I have read and agree to the terms and conditions.”
Join a social media network, sign up for that free trial or register on an email service and you’re stopped partway through the process with that checkbox. Click and you’re through. Decline and you’re out.
Scroll further down and you’ll read what that means: Google watches your activity, from the browser you use and the sites you visit to your purchase activity and the people with whom you chat and share content. It even logs if your name appears in your local paper. And it can share or sell that information to third parties.
That’s not okay says Jessé David Thé, founder of Zebu, a workplace productivity platform with a focus on privacy and cybersecurity. “The standard is that the company offering you the service has complete access to all your information. They can even at times sign in to your account and read everything you do.”
No surprise there. After all, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. That phrase is so common that it’s now a cliché. And that’s where Zebu is different, Thé says.
“We can’t do that.”
You can’t sell what you can’t see
Make note: that’s “can’t,” not “won’t.” For Thé, that’s an important distinction between what his company offers via their productivity suite vs. the big players in messaging, file storage and calendar services like Google, Apple, Dropbox, Microsoft and Facebook.
But to understand what “can’t” means, we need to step back and talk encryption.
“Not only do these companies not sufficiently protect the user data that’s being stored with them, but they even analyze scan, read and sell all that information.”
– Jessé David Thé, CEO and founder of Zebu
In its simplest terms, encryption moves information safely between two people so that no one else can listen in. It’s like a very sophisticated cipher that scrambles your data and gives you and the recipient the right key to decode it. It’s standard on most websites and cloud services.
But there are different kinds and different levels of encryption. And some companies have copies of or hold the encryption keys themselves, meaning they have open access.
That’s troubling, Thé says. “Not only do these companies not sufficiently protect, in many cases, the user data that’s being stored with them, but they even analyze scan, read and sell all that information.”
Even if a company claims it doesn’t use those kinds of tactics, it’s no guarantee that the same will be true in the future. “A lot of companies say, ‘We encrypt your data and we don’t sell it,’ but they can still access and read that information,” he adds. “So there’s nothing to stop them from, in two years, deciding to change their business model and start selling your information.”
The best way to protect against that? Make sure the company itself doesn’t have access to encryption keys, Thé says. That’s called a zero-knowledge solution, and that’s precisely why it’s impossible for Zebu to poke around in your data – now or in the future. Even if they wanted to (which they don’t), there’s no way to bypass the system.
Plus, Zebu uses military-grade encryption to protect against data breaches, Thé adds. Each separate file, message and calendar entry gets its own key, for example. That means if there’s a breach in one, no other data is at risk.
“We’re really putting that in place to ensure that our users’ information is private today, and will maintain its privacy for the long term.”
– Jessé David Thé
And encryption on their service happens before the data hits the cloud. Yes, even in those few moments between taking a photo and uploading it to an encrypted service, a hijacker could nab your data before encryption is complete. Their encryption-first approach means data is never unprotected in transit, for anyone who might be eavesdropping.
Put together, “We’re really putting that in place to ensure that our users’ information is private today, and will maintain its privacy for the long term,” Thé says.
Keeping safe while keeping pace
But let’s not forget why you use messaging, file storage or calendar services in the first place. Productivity.
It’s a big market with a big demand. Today, team collaboration software is an estimated US$3.5 billion market worldwide, set to grow almost 70 per cent in the next three years. The reason for that demand? They could boost productivity by 20 to 25 per cent, which could potentially contribute up to US$1.3 trillion in annual value.
When Zebu first started, “The whole vision was to help businesses. We wanted to create a platform to make it extremely easy and fast for people at work to communicate, schedule and manage everything that there is to do,” he says.
Thé was talking with an HR company when cybersecurity entered the picture. “When we were talking with them, we realized this company deals with sexual harassment cases, employee salaries, people having disputes at work, all the details of that information,” he says. “If they’re going to be putting this into our platform, that’s extremely sensitive stuff.”
Imagine that HR information landing in a profile about you somewhere behind the scenes, being sold off to an unknown third party or being exposed by a bad actor, he adds.
“We wanted to create a platform to make it extremely easy and fast for people at work to communicate, schedule and manage everything.”
– Jessé David Thé
Zebu wants to move information off of services that collect data, all without interrupting productivity benefits that come with storing information on the cloud, and all while boosting security, Thé says.
“So not only do we help boost their productivity by offering a platform that facilitates really quick and instant communication scheduling and file management, but then we’re also securing that information in the background,” he says. “It’s almost unperceivable to the user because of how its implemented, but that can really save a business in the long run.”
Don’t keep your head in the clouds
If you just opened a tab in your browser to check the terms of service on your cloud apps, well, we don’t blame you. Zebu used to use those services, too, says Thé. In fact, he initially thought companies like Google had secure collaboration on lockdown. But when he dug into the details, he was surprised to learn they didn’t.
“We were very disgusted by that kind of treatment. And we realized that a lot of these platforms we had been using ourselves, and not realizing that we were being used in that way,” he remembers.
As long as collecting and selling user data en masse is a “normal” part of doing businesses, there’s still work to do, he says.
But he sees hope, not just in the solutions Zebu offers but in the direction of public discourse around the subject of privacy – which the company firmly believes is a fundamental human right.
“The way the public sees privacy when it comes to a lot of the software companies is changing, already we can see that.” And Zebu wants to lead the charge.
See what makes Zebu different for yourself (don’t worry – they use https)!