What do you for an encore after you founded and sold OKCupid? Well you tackle public-key encryption, of course.
Keybase was the result, and the company announced a $10.8 million Series A investment today led by Andreessen Horowitz.
While it may not seem like a logical next move, co-founders Max Krohn and Chris Coyne were considering what to do after they left OKCupid in 2013. They decided to apply their application design skills and security knowledge to a long-known problem around public key encryption. Even though many folks knew using it was a good idea, the technology has been too obtuse for most mere mortals to understand.
Computer encryption technology has existed for over 40 years, and various attempts such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) have been made through the years to make it accessible to the masses, but these solutions inevitably required a certain level of technical proficiency to make them work. As a result, they never found mainstream acceptance.
Keybase is an attempt to make it simpler and encourage mass usage.
As Krohn wrote in a blog post announcing the funding, “We’re going to shield end-users from the annoyances and mystery of crypto, while making the code clean, easy to audit, and easy to contribute to.”
We’re going to shield end-users from the annoyances and mystery of crypto, while making the code clean, easy to audit, and easy to contribute to. Max Krohn, co-founder of Keybase
They are doing that by making the product open source, so it has all of the transparency and security you would expect, including a bug bounty program to keep things honest. Chris Dixon, who is leading the investment for Andreessen Horowitz says the beauty of the Keybase approach is that you don’t have to trust them.
“The code is open source. The database is open. You just have to trust the cryptographic algorithms they use. Security experts can analyze [everything]. It will be public and be vetted by the security community,” Dixon said.
While most Internet services make use of encryption, Dixon wrote in a blog post that these solutions have been watered down by a variety of factors:
“Various forms of cryptography are baked into almost every popular internet service. Yet the hacks and data breaches continue, mainly because the otherwise invulnerable cryptographic protocols are embedded within larger systems in which vulnerabilities are introduced by software bugs, employee mistakes, product design tradeoffs, legal constraints, management decisions, etc.,” he wrote.
Keybase’s founders decided that creating and finding a a person’s public key was the first problem to solve. In the past, public-key creation systems were cumbersome, but Keybase keeps it simple by basing your key on a your social identity, something people generally know (or is easy to find) and which makes it easier to verify that the individual is who you think they are.
The next step is to create messaging and file sharing apps that allow users to send and receive encrypted messages and files in a simple fashion, so long as they use Keybase. Krohn says the team is working on getting these ready now — and the hope is that because encryption is so important that people will adopt these tools, so long as they are easy enough to use.
The founders aren’t sure how they are going to monetize the product quite yet, but they know it won’t be by ad-support, a model they used with OKCupid. For now, they have some runway to figure that out because Andreessen Horowitz believes this is immensely important technology, Krohn explained.
Eventually, the company hopes that others will adopt and build upon the technology it has created.
“We are determined to get the consumer side right. We believe that if consumers have access to public key technology then others can build on top of that,” he said.