OpenBazaar’s Hoffman: I’m Sure We’re Being Watched at Some Level

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OpenBazaar Lead Developer Brian Hoffman was recently interviewed on This Week in Startups (TWIS), and he was asked a few different questions about the controversial nature of his platform for decentralized online commerce. On more than one occasion, TWIS Host Jason Calacanis brought up the topic of how governments will react to this new technology, and Hoffman provided insightful comments regarding everything from three-letter agencies to the realities of online anonymity.

Three-Letter Agencies are Probably Following Us

At one point during the interview, Calacanis brought up the topic of whether government agencies may be interested in what the OpenBazaar team is building right now. Hoffman, who worked at Booz Allen Hamilton (Edward Snowden’s former employer) for ten years, made it clear that he’s aware some government agencies around the world are probably interested in what’s going on with this new platform:

“In terms of how we feel [about three-letter] agencies [possibly] following us, our assumption is that they probably are. We haven’t, obviously, been contacted by anybody yet, but as we found out today with the leaks from the Hacking Team thing — somewhere within that is some mention of us and their concern that we’re kind of the next wave of these types of [darknet] marketplaces. We do know we’re being watched — I’m sure — at some level.”

Could a Government Ask OpenBazaar Developers for Help?

Of course, just because a government agency or two could be tracking the progress of OpenBazaar does not mean they’ll be able to do anything about it. At it’s core, OpenBazaar is nothing more than an open-source protocol, so there isn’t much a malicious actor could do to exploit users or prevent its creation completely. Much like regulating torrent software, preventing the proliferation of OpenBazaar across the world seems to be a fruitless task.

Hoffman touched on the limited options the OpenBazaar development team would have if a government agency requested their help:

“There’s a very limited amount of things that we can do. People always ask us — you [have to] add a filter, you have to do this, you have to do that. And I’m like, well you add those things to the code — it’s open — you’re going to see immediately that you do that. It’s just like any other project, so there’s not really much we can do.”

On the Realities of Online Anonymity

Most people view OpenBazaar as the next phase of evolution for darknet marketplaces, but Hoffman admitted that online anonymity is not as clear cut as some would like to make it seem. Most of the anonymous Internet activity today takes place on through Tor, and Hoffman stated, “I don’t know if it’s breakable.” He then referred to new technology as a “cat and mouse game” that “keeps going.”

In terms of government support for Tor, Hoffman noted:

“I would imagine that simultaneously they’re working on tools that break it. Because if they have tools that break it, then they can break it and no one else can. And they can use it when they need it.”

While crypto-anarchists are anxiously waiting the release of OpenBazaar due to a new level of perceived privacy available on the network, the reality is that the team behind the platform is not ready to make any serious claims regarding anonymity. Hoffman shared his current view on OpenBazaar and anonymity during the interview:

“Making a claim of anonymity is really big. It’s a really big claim. I think you have to have a lot to back that up. Even a project that’s existed as long as Tor has and has the backing of the governments and everything — still there’s questions out there [as to] whether it’s not truly anonymous or it is. So, for a small project like us to claim that I think would be unreasonable. And so we don’t; we don’t try to claim that.”

At this point, it’s still unclear what OpenBazaar will enable, but there are plenty of people who believe that it will usher in a new age of online commerce. Governments and crypto-anarchists will be watching closely, but everyone should remember that there’s no such thing as perfect security on the Internet.