Dublin-based Evervault, a developer-focused security startup which sells encryption via API and is backed by a raft of big name investors including the likes of Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins and Index Ventures, is coming out of closed beta today — announcing open access to its encryption engine.
The startup says some 3,000 developers are on its waitlist to kick the tyres of its encryption engine, which it calls E3.
Among “dozens” of companies in its closed preview are drone delivery firm Manna, fintech startup Okra and health tech company Vital. Evervault says it’s targeting its tools at developers at companies with a core business need to collect and process four types of data: identity & contact data; financial & transaction data; health & medical data; and intellectual property.
The first suite of products it offers on E3 are called Relay and Cages; the former providing a new way for developers to encrypt and decrypt data as it passes in and out of apps; the latter offering a secure method — using trusted execution environments running on AWS — to process encrypted data by isolating the code that processes plaintext data from the rest of the developer stack.
Evervault is the first company to get a product deployed on Amazon Web Services’ Nitro Enclaves, per founder Shane Curran.
“Nitro Enclaves are basically environments where you can run code and prove that the code that’s running in the data itself is the code that you’re meant to be running,” he tells TechCrunch. “We were the first production deployment of a product on AWS Nitro Enclaves — so in terms of the people actually taking that approach we’re the only ones.”
It shouldn’t be news to anyone to say that data breaches continue to be a serious problem online. And unfortunately it’s sloppy security practices by app makers — or even a total lack of attention to securing user data — that’s frequently to blame when plaintext data leaks or is improperly accessed.
Evervault’s fix for this unfortunate “feature” of the app ecosystem is to make it super simple for developers to bake in encryption via an API — taking the strain of tasks like managing encryption keys. (“Integrate Evervault in 5 minutes by changing a DNS record and including our SDK,” is the developer-enticing pitch on its website.)
“At the high level what we’re doing… is we’re really focusing on getting companies from [a position of] not approaching security and privacy from any perspective at all — up and running with encryption so that they can actually, at the very least, start to implement the controls,” says Curran.
“One of the biggest problems that companies have these days is they basically collect data and the data sort of gets sprawled across both their implementation and their test sets as well. The benefit of encryption is that you know exactly when data was accessed and how it was accessed. So it just gives people a platform to see what’s happening with the data and start implementing those controls themselves.”
With C-suite executives paying increasing mind to the need to properly secure data — thanks to years of horrific data breach scandals (and breach déjà vu), and also because of updated data protection laws like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which has beefed up penalties for lax security and data misuse — a growing number of startups are now pitching services that promise to deliver “data privacy”, touting tools they claim will protect data while still enabling developers to extract useful intel.
Evervault’s website also deploys the term “data privacy” — which it tells us it defines to mean that “no unauthorized party has access to plaintext user/customer data; users/customers and authorized developers have full control over who has access to data (including when and for what purpose); and, plaintext data breaches are ended”. (So encrypted data could, in theory, still leak — but the point is the information would remain protected as a result of still being robustly encrypted.)
Among a number of techniques being commercialized by startups in this space is homomorphic encryption — a process that allows for analysis of encrypted data without the need to decrypt the data.
Evervault’s first offering doesn’t go that far — although its “encryption manifesto” notes that it’s keeping a close eye on the technique. And Curran confirms it is likely to incorporate the approach in time. But he says its first focus has been to get E3 up and running with an offering that can help a broad swathe of developers.
“Fully homomorphic [encryption] is great. The biggest challenge if you’re targeting software developers who are building normal services it’s very hard to build general purpose applications on top of it. So we take another approach — which is basically using trusted execution environments. And we worked with the Amazon Web Services team on being their first production deployment of their new product called Nitro Enclaves,” he tells TechCrunch.
“The bigger focus for us is less about the underlying technology itself and it’s more about taking what the best security practices are for companies that are already investing heavily in this and just making them accessible to average developers who don’t even know how encryption works,” Curran continues. “That’s where we get the biggest nuance of Evervault versus some of these others privacy and security companies — we build for developers who don’t normally think about security when they’re building things and try to build a great experience around that… so it’s really just about bridging the gap between ‘the start of art’ and bringing it to average developers.”
“Over time fully homomorphic encryption is probably a no-brainer for us but both in terms of performance and flexibility for your average developer to get up and running it didn’t really make sense for us to build on it in its current form. But it’s something we’re looking into. We’re really looking at what’s coming out of academia — and if we can fit it in there. But in the meantime it’s all this trusted execution environment,” he adds.
Curran suggests Evervault’s main competitor at this point is open-source encryption libraries — so basically developers opting to “do” the encryption piece themselves. Hence it’s zeroing in on the service aspect of its offering; taking on encryption management tasks so developers don’t have to, while also reducing their security risk by ensuring they don’t have to touch data in the clear.
“When we’re looking at those sort of developers — who’re already starting to think about doing it themselves — the biggest differentiator with Evervault is, firstly the speed of integration, but more importantly it’s the management of encrypted data itself,” Curran suggests. “With Evervault we manage the keys but we don’t store any data and our customers store encrypted data but they don’t store keys. So it means that even if they want to encrypt something with Evervault they never have all the data themselves in plaintext — whereas with open-source encryption they’ll have to have it at some point before they do the encryption. So that’s really the base competitor that we see.
“Obviously there are some other projects out there — like Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid project and so on. But it’s not clear that there’s anybody else taking the developer-experience focused approach to encryption specifically. Obviously there’s a bunch of API security companies… but encryption through an API is something we haven’t really come across in the past with customers,” he adds.
While Evervault’s current approach sees app makers’ data hosted in dedicated trusted execution environments running on AWS, the information still exists there as plaintext — for now. But as encryption continues to evolve it’s possible to envisage a future where apps aren’t just encrypted by default (Evervault’s stated mission is to “encrypt the web”) but where user data, once ingested and encrypted, never needs to be decrypted — as all processing can be carried out on ciphertext.
Homomorphic encryption has unsurprisingly been called the “holy grail” of security and privacy — and startups like Duality are busy chasing it. But the reality on the ground, online and in app stores remains a whole lot more rudimentary. So Evervault sees plenty of value in getting on with trying to raise the encryption bar more generally.
Curran also points out that plenty of developers aren’t actually doing much processing of the data they gather — arguing therefore that caging plaintext data inside a trusted execution environment can thus abstract away a large part of the risk related to these sort of data flows anyway. “The reality is most developers who are building software these days aren’t necessarily processing data themselves,” he suggests. “They’re actually just sort of collecting it from their users and then sharing it with third-party APIs.
“If you look at a startup building something with Stripe — the credit card flows through their systems but it always ends up being passed on somewhere else. I think that’s generally the direction that most startups are going these days. So you can trust the execution — depending on the security of the silicon in an Amazon data center kind of makes the most sense.”
On the regulatory side, the data protection story is a little more nuanced than the typical security startup spin.
While Europe’s GDPR certainly bakes security requirements into law, the flagship data protection regime also provides citizens with a suite of access rights attached to their personal data — a key element that’s often overlooked in developer-first discussions of “data privacy”.
Evervault concedes that data access rights haven’t been front of mind yet, with the team’s initial focus being squarely on encryption. But Curran tells us it plans — “over time” — to roll out products that will “simplify access rights as well”.
“In the future, Evervault will provide the following functionality: Encrypted data tagging (to, for example, time-lock data usage); programmatic role-based access (to, for example, prevent an employee seeing data in plaintext in a UI); and, programmatic compliance (e.g. data localization),” he further notes on that.