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Privacy Tech | Startup hopes to give users control over privacy Related reading: This tool helps manage, update smart home devices

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Manu Fontaine does not believe privacy should equal secrecy.

The former AOL and EMC Corporation employee has been working for the last 15 years on developing a way to alter the equation so privacy instead equals control, specifically for internet users to have control over their information, and the freedom of choice when moving their information from one place to another.

Fontaine is hoping his vision becomes reality as he launches Hushmesh, a platform designed to put users in the driver’s seat whenever an organization needs their personally identifiable information in order to complete a transaction.

Users would sign up for the service and open up a prepaid account in order to pay for their user profile, and a cryptographically unique "Privacy Beacon." Users will pay a small daily fee for everyone in the household to have their data protected as they make transactions online.

Fontaine’s platform first has users fill out a profile similar to one they would complete for a social media network. The owner creates a profile for each person who will be linked to the network. The minimum users will need to enter are names and home addresses, while having the option to enter dates of birth and other social media information. Users will have the ability to manage their information within the platform as transactions are made.

"From there, each participating organization may pop up requests for additional data that is not yet on the universal profile," Fontaine said in an email to Privacy Tech. "Any store would prompt for payment method. A clothing store may ask for body measurements. A shoe store for shoe size. A medical office for vaccination data and pre-existing conditions. The key is that all those data elements get attached to your profile under your control. They are made accessible to the participating organization as long as you agree to it. Data that organizations create about you from the transactions (for instance, a receipt for the shoes you just bought) gets added to your profile, too, and can be reused by you at a later date, with the same business or another."

User data will be protected by the Privacy Beacon, which will be linked to their home address. The user will be able to place the device anywhere within their home. The beacon is designed to stay in a static location once it is set up, as the device will send the user alerts if it is moved too many times, unplugged, or cannot see a consistent Wi-Fi network. Once the beacon is set up, Fontaine said the user will almost never interact with the device again.

Users will have the ability to have the beacon recognize their smartphones as trusted devices, allowing them to monitor any data transactions when they are away from their homes. Fontaine claims his company is the first one to ever use a person’s home address as the main method of authentication.

Fontaine plans to build an API for businesses and organizations that participate within the program. Anytime an organization needs to access a user’s information, they will connect with the user’s beacon, and transactions will be protected by end-to-end encryption. Fontaine said organizations will pay varying levels of small fees, depending on the types of information they wish to access, while adding more fees may be charged if an organization seeks higher-profile information.

“We are going to flip the model and create a Privacy as a Service platform for any organization to participate in the Mesh," said Fontaine. “What those terms of service are essentially going to say is that you can get access to the personal information of our members, but you agree only to use it for the transaction that they are trying to do at that specific moment in time. You are not going to take it away and store it and do something else with it.”

Fontaine added he is looking to find a way to defray the costs consumers could face, such as companies paying for the device as an employee benefit. Fontaine believes companies would be interested in the platform because it could be used to authenticate information for corporate transactions as well.

In order for the organizations to access the information, they must agree to the “People’s Terms of Service,” Fontaine’s way of altering the traditional method of users having to agree to an organization’s terms.

“We are going to flip the model and create a Privacy as a Service platform for any organization to participate in the Mesh," said Fontaine. “What those terms of service are essentially going to say is that you can get access to the personal information of our members, but you agree only to use it for the transaction that they are trying to do at that specific moment in time. You are not going to take it away and store it and do something else with it.”

Hushmesh can also replace a corporation's internal single sign-on. Companies connect with their employees, and identify them as employees on the Hushmesh network.

"From there, companies can use Hushmesh's single sign on as their corporate authentication system just like they may use other third-party authentication platforms. The benefit here is that it unifies identity, authentication, end-to-end security, and trust across employees and consumers," Fontaine said in an email.

Just launched in May, Fontaine is seeking funding to get his product off the ground. He has tried several times to jumpstart a solution similar to Hushmesh, but found a major issue constantly rising when money came into the fold.

“I tried venture capital firms, and the problem I ran into there is for them to give you any seed money, they want to control the company very quickly,” said Fontaine. “The way that you would have to raise money is going to preclude you from finding an investor who is willing relinquish control and give it to the users themselves."

The first step Fontaine hopes to achieve is to raise at least $50,000 to file with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission and launch the second phase of funding.

Fontaine’s plan is to start an equity crowdfunding campaign during the seed round of funding. After the $50,000 has been raised, Fontaine will be offering shares of the company for every dollar paid going forward.

It’s a model that comes with a sacrifice Fontaine is willing to make to help the company get off the ground. Once ten million shares have been distributed, Fontaine will lose the majority vote for the company. Fontaine wants to live up to his promise of giving control to the users, and his funding methods lines up with how he views privacy as a whole. 

“The minute I take a lot of money from a few people, I’m going to have to pay attention to those few people rather than the millions that I could be helping,” said Fontaine. “Privacy has to be people-centric. It has to be for the people first.”

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