Sharing Information Securely

A common question (well, at least I get asked it quite often) is how do you share information both between your own computers/access and with others in a secure manner. Until now, the approaches have been less than perfect and, in many cases, require technical skills and work. Well, Wuala seems to offer a good solution. I confess I just started playing with it but, so far, it seems to do everything with close to no work/inconvenience.

In the past, the typical methods have been:

  • Encrypted email using PGP/GPG. For it to work you need to set up a client, exchange keys with the recipient (yes, only one) and then send the message. Lots of steps and, for some, close to impossible to actually do.
  • Use some file sharing service. Unfortunately, even the secure ones have you sending your unencrypted data (at least, over a secure channel) for them to encrypt. That means, you have to trust them to not look at your data and/or share it with big brother.
  • Using obscurity. For example, if you want to send something small such as a credit card number you could edit an image file and insert the info without seriously changing what the image looks like.
  • Other secure transfer methods (such as scp) which, unfortunately, require sharing some information to enable decryption.

Enter Wuala

What I discovered yesterday is http://wuala.com. At first glance it is just another file sharing service but, well, done right. You download the software to your local machine (Linux, Mac and Windoze versions are available), set it up and create yourself a Wuala account. (A 5GB account is free.) The client looks like a file system driver on your end. Thus, it appears like you have some new 5GB disk that you can write to and read from. Whenever you access it (e.g., you copy a file into it), the data is encrypted (locally) and sent to the Wuala storage.

That's the most basic situation. For you, what this means is:

  1. You have a safe place to back up 5GB of information.
  2. By running this same Wuala client on another system, you have a way to share it between your computers.
Note that it also has a web interface (which I haven't tried yet) so that you could access the information from any machine with a web browser and Internet connection.

Now comes the cool stuff, synchronization and sharing with others.

Synchronization

As your computer sees the Wuala share a a different type of file system, you can't just link from where you have some files you want to back up to the Wuala directory tree. But, the Wuala application includes a synchronization feature that solves this issue for you.

You just tell it the name of your local directory and where you would like it synchronized in your Wuala tree. It then transparently synchronizes the two folders. Or, more accurately, the Wuala folder and what is locally synchronized on all the places were you are running Wuala.

As an added benefit, the server knows what you are synchronizing so if you add another computer to your account, you are asked if you want to establish shares on it that you have on your other machine. In other words, it does what you want it to do.

Share With Others

This capability came as a surprise to me. Or, more accurately, that you could share with others still maintaining security. There is a technical paper on the Wuala site that explains how this is done but, bottom line, it is done.

To use the feature, you create a group. You can then invite other Wuala users to be members. Sharing between members (and only members unless you open up the information) just works -- transparently. You can optionally publish a URL to get to the information and/or make it public but the just for who I pick option is far more intresting.

To test this out, I have started writing a document using Zim (don't know what that is? -- see my article here about Zim) that I want to share with a few people. To put the pieces together, here is what I have:

  • A Wuala group where I am the administrator. That means I can pick who will have access.
  • A Zim notebook created within the directory hierarchy of the group.
  • Instructions to Wuala to synchronize the Zim notebook with the shared Wuala group directory.
  • Zim running on my computers (which is not new -- just a new hierarchy).

All the geek stuff is done so I no longer need to think about it. I can just start up Zim on any of my synchronized machines and start writing/editing. Much like how Zim works to start with (no need to save anything an no need to ever use a mouse), the whole process should just follow.