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Utah encryption startup donates almost $2M to fight digital snooping

Utah native Mick Hagen, founder and CEO of Lehi-based secure communication startup Mainframe. Hagen's company just completed almost $2 million in donations to nonprofits working to battle digital surveillance and promote human rights around the world.
Utah native Mick Hagen, founder and CEO of Lehi-based secure communication startup Mainframe. Hagen's company just completed almost $2 million in donations to nonprofits working to battle digital surveillance and promote human rights around the world.

LEHI — A Utah tech startup working to build a platform for secure and encrypted communications leveraged a recent venture fundraising effort to raise almost $2 million for nonprofits engaged in fighting digital snooping and political oppression.

Mainframe is developing "a censorship-resistant and surveillance-resistant blockchain protocol" on the Ethereum blockchain that aims to allow for secure communications and information transfers.

The company's efforts to build its platform are ongoing, and it just secured some $20 million in funding for the work. While the platform is still under development, Mainframe has launched a proof-of-concept messaging app, Onyx, that functions like Slack, but on a decentralized network.

Utah native Mick Hagen, Mainframe's founder and CEO, told the Deseret News his company's mission is to empower both entities and individuals with the ability to own and protect their digital communications, and blockchain provides the perfect basis on which to build those tools.

"It is kind of an interesting paradox," Hagen said. "Blockchain is decentralized, transparent and open, but you can move encrypted data in a manner that is accountable. While the decentralized structure relies on hundreds, or even thousands of verifiers, in some ways it is much more private."

Hagen said his company created a philanthropic sidebar to their venture effort — Proof of Heart — with the goal of incentivizing investors to donate to a fund to aid nonprofit efforts that align with Mainframe's mission goals.

Recipients of $1.4 million in Proof of Heart cryptocurrency funds included the Human Rights Foundation's Flash Drives for Freedom program, aimed at sharing information with North Korean residents; Witness, a group that advocates for using video and technology to record, and address, human rights abuses; Coin Center, a nonprofit think tank for cryptocurrency policy issues; Access Now, a human rights group that works to help leverage technology for change; Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties defense group; Reporters Without Borders, a group working to ensure free and fair access to information; and Index on Censorship, a group that campaigns for and defends freedom of expression rights.

Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer for the Human Rights Foundation, said the Proof of Heart donation will aid his organization's efforts to bring news and information to North Korean residents, via the Flash Drives for Freedom program.

"This vital support will allow (Human Rights Foundation) to send in a significant amount of news, entertainment, culture and educational materials to a population of millions who are completely cut off from the internet and brainwashed by the Kim dynasty," Gladstein said in a statement. "To make progress towards a free North Korea, we must help put cracks in the information wall put up by the dictatorship, and give windows to the outside world to North Korean citizens. Mainframe's support will help us make this possible."

Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, executive director of Witness, said she sees Mainframe as a kindred effort in the fight to protect digital privacy and freedom of expression.

“At Witness we help the world's most vulnerable populations use video and technology to tell their stories and stand up to powerful actors who abuse their fundamental rights," Alberdingk Thijm said in a statement. "Mainframe's Proof of Heart initiative resonated deeply with us. Their commitment to protecting privacy and freedom of expression are aligned with our belief that these are prerequisites for a vibrant and just civil society."

In June, Mainframe donated 1,000 Ethereum tokens — worth $550,000 at the time — to support the work of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. The nonprofit, according to its website, is "dedicated to helping support and defend public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government" through the use of crowdfunding, digital security and internet advocacy.

The group's board of directors includes National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden; activist, author and former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who, through sharing the Pentagon Papers with the New York Times in 1971 exposed concealed U.S. government decision-making behind the Vietnam War; journalist, lawyer and founder of the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, who along with Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras, broke the NSA mass surveillance story revealed by documents provided by Snowden; journalist Poitras, who also won an Academy Award for her documentary on the Snowden story, Citizenfour; and journalist, activist and lawyer, Trevor Timm, who is also the executive director of the foundation.

In an email interview with the Deseret News, Timm said the Mainframe donation will help continue improving SecureDrop, an open source digital tool developed by the foundation for mediating the anonymous sharing of documents between whistleblowers and journalists.

"This donation will be critical to our work in building technology that helps journalists and whistleblowers communicate securely," Timm said. "We hope we'll be able to use this funding to hire additional engineers (to work) on SecureDrop, our open source whistleblower submission system, and be able to train far more journalists how to use encryption and digital security tools."

Timm said it's critical, for both sources and reporters, to learn how to utilize digital tools like SecureDrop to continue the work of watchdog journalism in a world of quickly evolving technological advances.

"The ability for sources to communicate safely and securely with journalists is absolutely critical to press freedom," Timm said. "If sources are not willing to speak with journalists about issues of public interest, ultimately our democracy loses out. At Freedom of the Press Foundation, we have been pushing for journalists to become more adept at using encryption and other digital security tools for years, and it's encouraging to see that recently there has been much more pickup."

Hagen, who founded Mainframe in London but moved the company to Lehi earlier this summer, said the organizations that received Proof of Heart funding were chosen because of their committment to leveraging new tools, like blockchain technology, to advance the global fight for open and unsurveilled communications.

“As the world becomes increasingly digital, consumers and the institutions they rely on are forced to ask themselves the question of who should be the masters of their technology, and how," Hagen said. "These organizations were chosen for their notable achievements in advancing the fight for the free and secure exchange of information, and their commitment to exploring uses of blockchain technology in their work.

“We’re excited to stand side by side with these organizations that put human rights first.”