How the HTC Exodus Blockchain Phone Plans to Secure Your Cryptocurrency

It’s as good an answer as any right now, and preferable to HTC attempting to built its own solution from the ground up. But TrustZone isn’t a security panacea. “If somebody claims something is secure, a lot of people try to poke into it,” says Simha Sethumadhavan, a computer scientist at Columbia University. “Over the years there have been several attacks on TrustZone.”

That includes one from Sethumadhavan, who along with coauthors Adrian Tang and Salvatore Stolfo published research last year detailing how to not just break TrustZone security but alter the code that’s running in the secure environment.

To be absolutely clear: These attacks are difficult to pull off, and TrustZone generally works as advertised. “It does significantly raise the bar for the attacker,” says Sethumadhavan. “It’s better than putting it in the insecure world, for sure,” he adds, referring to the broader Android operating system.

Even Chen, refreshingly, recognizes the trade-offs involved. “There’s no such thing as 100 percent security. It’s always a balance between security and usability,” he says. “We’re still at the very early stages of educating users that this is not a 100 percent secure solution, but as of right now it’s the best so far. It’s our attempt to do something that’s best from the market.”

Until and unless the industry open sources everything, Chen says, HTC has to take as an article of faith that ARM and chipmaker Qualcomm will deliver the security they promise. He acknowledges that hardening the HTC Exodus will also require input from cryptographers and the broader cryptocurrency community. “It’s really a beta,” he says. “We’re still targeting the 30-35 million people that have software wallets, and this is a much better solution than that.”

And while Chen wouldn’t argue that the Exodus is more secure than cold storage, he does stress that it offers much better usability. There’s no dusting off a hard drive and connecting it with USB to your laptop and struggling through a clumsy interface.

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The HTC Exodus will also offer a novel way to recover your keys, which are often a series of words that need to be entered in the event that you lose access to your wallet. If you lose both your wallet and your recovery keys, you’ve officially lost everything.

That dynamic comes into especially sharp relief with smartphones, which, when you aren’t losing or breaking them periodically, you’re actively replacing every two or three years.

HTC’s proposed failsafe: You can split your key among three to five people you trust, all of whom will need to download an app for this to work. You won’t need their help to assign transactions, but you will if you lose your phone. “It revolves around this fundamental principle of users owning their keys. I do want to stress that this is a very, very difficult problem. People aren’t used to owning their keys. People are used to calling up Apple or Google,” says Chen.

Putting that power in the hands of users and their friends is certainly in line with the HTC Exodus philosophy. But it also raises several immediate flags: What if you have a falling out with one of those friends, or they get a new phone, or delete the app, or die? Does the backup have a backup?

Not yet. “This is the 1.0 version,” Chen says. “There are other backup plans that we’ve thought of, but they’re not part of the solution yet.”

That sounds dire, but it’s at least something. If you find yourself in a comparable situation with a cold storage wallet—or the Sirin Labs Finney blockchain phone—you generally have no options at all.

Plenty of questions remain about the HTC Exodus, especially regarding the company’s long-term vision of revolutionizing how people relate not just to their cryptocurrencies, but their data and identity. HTC may still be figuring out how the blockchain smartphone will change the world. But at least it has some answers as to how to make it safe.

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