Neobase hands-on preview: It’s just like Facebook, but with complete privacy

After more than two years of development, this private social-networking device is almost ready for prime time.

Neone Neobase front
Michael Brown

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How much privacy have you sacrificed in an effort to stay in touch with friends and family on services like Facebook? You’re sharing life’s moments in bon mots and photographs intended for their eyes only, only to find them spread all over the Internet because you can’t control your friends’ and family’s privacy settings.

Do you really know who’s looking at those cute pictures of your kids (grandkids, in my case) getting their first bath? Are you comfortable knowing a company like Facebook is extracting information and events from your personal life, packaging that data, and selling to the highest bidder?

I had grave privacy concerns when I first started using Facebook, especially when my kids—two of whom now live in different states—started sharing photos of their kids. Over time, I came to think of our collective loss of privacy as a necessary evil—a trade-off for an easy and effective way of keeping in touch and renewing bonds with old friends. If Neone’s Neobase lives up to its promise, that trade-off could become a thing of the past. (The company’s name, by the way, is pronounced “nee-own-ee.”)

Neone Neobase rear Michael Brown

The Neobase encrypts the data on its 1TB hard drive. Connect additional storage via its USB port, and the data on that drive will also be encrypted.

The best way to describe the Neobase is Facebook with total privacy. There's hardware, in the form a plastic cylinder housing a 1TB hard drive that you connect to your router; and software in the form of a client that resides on your smartphone, tablet, or PC. When you invite people to join your Neobase network, they’ll need to install the Neobase client on their devices, too. Once they’ve done that, you can share messages and media (photos, videos, Google docs, PDFs… any type of file you wish) with them in a feed, just as you’d do with Facebook or other social network.

The key difference: Those messages and that media are then encrypted using the Secure Shell (SSH) cryptographic network protocol the instant you click “post,” and they remain encrypted when stored on the Neobase’s hard drive. Your data travels through the cloud, but it’s never retained in the cloud. It doesn’t even pass through a server that Neone controls—the Neobase is itself a server. Your and each of your friends’ connections to the Neobase are established over a virtual private network (VPN) on a peer-to-peer basis. Neone doesn’t store your user ID, your password, or the encryption keys, either—all of that information is stored on the devices you use to connect to the Neobase. Even the people you share media with can’t download those files.

Neone Neobase user interface

Posts and any files you want to share appear in a chronological feed. (Yes, this is a very old picture.) 

Neone can’t collect any personal information about you, it can’t profile you and sell that data to others, there are no subscription fees, and no advertising. The company’s revenue stream is limited to selling its hardware. The people you invite to share information via your Neobase don’t need to purchase a Neobase of their own—unless they want to exchange messages outside your shared network of friends you family. “Our hope is that other people will buy one so that they can share with other people,” Neone Chief Product Officer Dan Cohen told me in an interview last week.

Still in development

My early opinion of the Neobase is based on a briefing with Cohen and hands-on experience using the final hardware and a beta version of the client. This product isn’t finished and Neone isn’t offering it for sale. I did encounter a few bugs that will need to be squashed before then. Neone could also improve its Neobase by allowing you to customize the invitations you send to people you want to share with, to reduce the chances they (or their email client) will dismiss the invitation as spam.

I dig the idea behind the Neobase, but it is destined to have some shortcomings by its very nature. On the upside, it’s a closed and private network. The downside is that the only people you can share information with are the people who accept your invitation. One of the best features of Facebook is the way it enables old friends to find each other and reconnect. If you don’t have an email address for your long-lost best friend from fourth grade, you’ll never be able to reconnect with him or her via the Neobase. Regrettably, Facebook might remain a necessary evil for the foreseeable future.

Update: The $199 Neobase is now available for preorder here.

This story, "Neobase hands-on preview: It’s just like Facebook, but with complete privacy" was originally published by TechHive.

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