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Diaspora: The Privacy-Aware Facebook Alternative

Mark Zuckerberg Details Privacy Settings

Facebook has been receiving a lot of negative attention lately concerning their lax approach towards user privacy.  Without configuring a convoluted system of privacy controls, users are (in many cases) unknowingly sharing their information with Facebook applications and websites that utilize Facebook Connect.  As a result, some high-profile names in the tech community have turned to deleting their Facebook profiles as a way to protest these privacy concerns.  Both Jason Calacanis and Leo Laporte have hosted live internet video streams of the account deletion process and the resulting furor caused Mark Zuckerburg, the CEO of Facebook, to hold a special event focused on privacy and security last week.

There will soon be a secure and privacy-aware alternative to Facebook, however.  A group of NYU students have realized the demand for a social networking solution that approaches data privacy in a more transparent way while still allowing folks to connect and share information.  Their project is called Diaspora, and although the four students are in the early stages of development they’ve already received a huge amount of media attention and financial backing.  It all started when the team created a page for Diaspora on Kickstarter with the hopes to generate $10,000 worth of funding to get the project started.  They ended up with almost 6,500 backers and over $200,000 worth of financial donations when all was said and done.  This alone shows the immense interest in their solution to the social networking privacy equation – but how does it work?

The idea behind Diaspora is to remove the central “node” that controls all social media transactions on the network.  For example, if I send someone a message on Facebook the transaction goes as follows:

  1. My message gets sent to the primary Facebook node
  2. The Facebook node determines whom the message needs to be sent to
  3. The Facebook node forwards my message to my friend

Diaspora makes it so that the “node” in the middle is actually a webserver running the open source Diaspora project which the user themselves can install and host.  In essence, any user can run their own instance of the Diaspora project and link it to other instances.  Then, social media is encrypted and shared from one instance to another on a case-by-case basis to provide extremely secure and private communications.  I’m a little sketchy about the details when it comes to each user running their own instance of Diaspora, because to be honest, 99% of the folks using Facebook aren’t going to want to deal with the hassle of running a web server.  That being said I could see the Diaspora project being modified and made more accessible down the road, and it’s great that they’re releasing the project to the open source community.

Diaspora’s unofficial project deadline is the end of this summer, so expect to hear more about it then!