Helm is a startup making a $500 home gadget that replaces Gmail and Google Calendar, letting you control your own email and coordination; its founders have deep information security backgrounds, and plan to make money by charging an annual $100 management fee.
The company's roadmap includes networked storage, comparable to dropbox or Google Drive, VPNs, password managers, and other services that currently live in the cloud.
The company has a centralized point-of-failure in the form of a gateway, though the data is end-to-end encrypted. One of the company's co-founders says the code to maintain service will be open and free "for people to be able to run their own gateways with their own AWS account in the event Helm has to shut down."
That said, parts of the system seem to be proprietary and not open to inspection by third parties. What's more, users will have to rely on the largesse of their ISPs, who have celebrated the death of Net Neutrality by engaging in all manner of fuckery that might endanger schemes like this.
The proprietary software is a dealbreaker for me (I live in email and my whole email server stack is open), but I'm nevertheless hopeful and glad to see Helm entering the market, selling on the basis of taking control over your data. Building up constituencies who experience daily benefits from decentralization and a neutral internet is a good thing, both for the health of the net, and for the future of network policy. People who rely on decentralization and neutrality will be less tolerant of monopolies and network discrimination, making it easier to demand better policy from our governments.
Also, I like that it's shaped like an open book!
The vision for Helm draws on fundamental internet concepts, namely that the web is more robust and free when it is decentralized, and everyone contributes a small piece of a larger whole. Helm hopes to extend that to decentralizing personal data storage, so users still get the security and reliability benefits associated with big companies, while retaining physical control of their information and choosing who to share it with. Eventually Helm could expand beyond email and storage into personal VPNs. or even a self-hosted password manager.
"You never know if you’ve thought of everything until something happens, but it certainly appears that they’re trying pretty hard," says Jeremy Gillula, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's tech policy director who got to demo Helm before it launched. "The real test will be do security updates get rolled out on a timely basis, that sort of thing. And that’s something you can only tell after it launches."
Helm will have a lot to prove, both in terms of usability and privacy. The company has built in a lot of fundamental mechanisms, like the ability to import data from other email services and sync between all of a user’s devices through mainstream email clients like Mozilla's Thunderbird and Apple's Mail. But enabling all of this easy setup also creates potential exposures.
This Startup Wants You to Control Your Own Data Again [Lily Hay Newman/Wired]