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July 4, 2018updated 21 Jul 2022 10:01am

This 22-Year-Old Spanish Programmer is Building an Open Source, Secure Alternative to Facebook

Can the idea be turned into a sustainable business?

By CBR Staff Writer

Joel Hernández is frank about why he’s trying to launch Openbook, an open source, hyper-secure social network as an alternative to Facebook.

The 22-year-old programmer and entrepreneur, who by day works as a security software engineer for Dutch telecoms giant KPN, told Computer Business Review: “We are sleepwalking into a zero privacy world. This may not be abused now, but it will be in future. I’m someone with the capability to fix a small part of that.”

Two years ago he had tried to talk a group of friends into the project, amid concerns about Facebook and other social media platform’s data sharing practices and a perceived lack of privacy. They told him they didn’t think anyone cared enough to make the leap to an alternative that prioritised security and transparency.

OpenBook CEO Joel Hernández

Openbook CEO Joel Hernández

The Cambridge Analytica scandal changed that. Facebook has confirmed some 87 million people had their data scraped by the company.

This included the “about me” section of user profiles; their actions, activities, birthday, check-ins, history, events, games activity, groups, hometown, interests, lives, location, notes, online presence, photo and video tags, photos, questions, relationship details, relationships, religion, politics, subscriptions, website and work history.

It’s a comprehensive data set and it alarmed many users. With the FBI, Securities Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission all reported to have joined the US Justice Department’s investigation into the social media behemoth, and the company losing young users in significant numbers, in April this year Hernández tried again; this time to a much more receptive audience.

On July 17, as a result, his nascent project, Openbook, will take to crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to try and raise a modest £100,000 to make the vision of a genuinely secure and transparent alternative a reality. His 10-strong team of volunteers already has a functioning prototype, but there is a lot more to do. So, what’s the aim?

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To start with, a social media platform that is fully open source. But also one that is highly secure.

As the company’s manifesto puts it: “Some examples of the technology we’ll be researching and developing include cryptographically enforced data sharing policies; end to end encrypted conversations on the browser; public key cryptography on the browser and post-quantum cryptography algorithms and protocols.”

The pipe dream of someone putting a few hours in from their bedroom? The Openbook team he has assembled would suggest otherwise. It includes the founder of PGP encryption, Phil Zimmerman and KPN’s globally renowned CISO Jaya Baloo.

There is, Hernández admits, a lot of work to do: “The toughest part is building for multiple platforms, and doing this in a secure way.”

“What we’re working on right now is also a much more positive form of online social interaction. We’re working on the form that might take, but Medium’s transition from ‘likes’ to ‘claps’ – and the way that appreciation can be expressed even in multiple claps from one user is an example of how things can be done differently.”

The team is building the user interface using Vue.js, the open-source Javascript framework and coding the service side primarily in Python. Hernández told Computer Business Review: “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for the open-source community to contribute and test. We already have two ethical hackers and one devops engineer constantly testing the infrastructure.

The route to monetisation sounds more inchoate. The company says: “Openbook will be a marketplace for peer-to-peer transactions of products, services and more”.

It won’t run targeted adverts; it will allow users to place them — and take a cut of the fee for doing so, with Openbook emphasising that “transactions made within the platform will benefit from the privacy and security of the ecosystem”.

The company also aims to help enterprise customers set up their own “internal, self-hosted and secure social networks” with extra functionality such as project, identity and access management. With the initially planned Kickstarter launch date clashing with the World Cup final, the launch of the one-month-long campaign starts on July 17 and contributors will get early access. (The source code, meanwhile, is here).

With less than one-third of teens saying they are comfortable sharing personal details other than contact information and purchase history, according to IBM’s survey Uniquely Gen Z, the market may be there. Whether Hernández’s team can build a product they and a broader privacy-conscious demographic wants to use – and turn it into a competitive business remains to be seen.

If they can, they are promising to put 30 percent of revenue to good causes, working with Founders Pledge to do so.

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