Helm Wants You to Control Your Own Data Again

One nice thing about using web-based services is that you rarely need to take charge. You just sign up for an account, and instantly access your data from anywhere on any device without having to know how the internet works, much less how to configure a server. But that lack of control over the process is also, increasingly, the problem. Companies hold your data on their servers, which means it could get used in ways you—and sometimes even they—don’t realize. And if a company gets hacked, your data could be stolen regardless of what precautions you personally took.

A startup called Helm, coming out of stealth Tuesday, aims to make it easy for you instead to own your data, and manage it locally on a personal server at home.

Helm has begun accepting orders for simple devices that you can use to store things like photos and videos, and to host your own email, contacts list, and calendar. You set up a Helm server in your house, office, or wherever with a mobile app, and can then access your own personal email server and cloud from all your devices anywhere. And the data on the device can’t be copied or accessed without a physical security token for multi-factor authentication.

The idea is to offer similar convenience to third-party web services without having to let your data live in someone else’s server farm, thereby reducing your exposure to targeted advertising, government surveillance, and data breaches.

“This is the first time that people will have an alternative to the existing way they live their lives online,” says Giri Sreenivas, co-founder and CEO of Helm, who previously worked on mobile security at companies like T-Mobile and the corporate security company Rapid7. “Our goal is to know as little about our customers as possible. When you profit off of people’s data and behaviors there are unintended consequences that are starting to come out more and more as a concern. So that’s not Helm’s business model. We don’t have access to your data.”

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Instead, the business model is a one-time fee of $499 to buy a Helm server. After the first year of ownership, Helm owners pay a $99 annual subscription to maintain the service. The servers come with 128GB of onboard storage and will be expandable up to 5TB. All of which might sound pricey to web users who already run their own personal servers. Hosting your own email is a hallmark for some tech enthusiasts and privacy advocates. But even though it’s entirely possible to do it on your own, Sreenivas says Helm wants to make the process accessible to the masses.

“If you rolled your own server you would have to stay on top of patching it, contact your ISP about getting a static IP address, configure reverse DNS, all these things,” he says. “Meanwhile most people don’t even really understand what the cloud is. So this is a physical place in their homes that they control where they can store all their data. It’s approachable.”

The vision for Helm draws on fundamental internet concepts, namely that the web is more robust and free when it is decentralized, and everyone contributes a small piece of a larger whole. Helm hopes to extend that to decentralizing personal data storage, so users still get the security and reliability benefits associated with big companies, while retaining physical control of their information and choosing who to share it with. Eventually Helm could expand beyond email and storage into personal VPNs. or even a self-hosted password manager.

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