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September 23, 2020

Could Element offer a secure alternative to workplace collaboration?

By Ellen Daniel

With the recent influx in remote working, it is not surprising that workplace collaboration tools have experienced a surge in popularity over the past year.

Recently, Slack’s revenue grew 49% year-over-year to $215.9m, with Zoom experienced a meteoric 355% boost to revenue.

However, this shift to remote working tools has also brought with it concerns about security and data sharing practices.

Earlier this year, Zoom faced scrutiny after it emerged that the Zoom IOS app was sending analytics to Facebook. The company also faced a class-action lawsuit in California for its data-sharing practices.

In addition, Microsoft – which rivals Slack with its Teams software – banned its employees from using the free version of Slack for “not providing required controls to properly protect Microsoft Intellectual Property” in 2019.

In the context of remote working, ensuring that confidential material stays secure is more important than ever. However, the ubiquity of the most well-known workplace collaboration tools means that many have little option but to opt-in.

However, UK startup Element has created what it hopes will be a more security-centric alternative. The collaboration platform, which operates on decentralised communication network Matrix, aims to give users the option of owning their own data.

With customers including the German Military and the French Government, could the company take on the giants in the workplace communication industry? Verdict spoke to Element’s founders Amandine Le Pape and Matthew Hodgson to find out more.

Ellen Daniel: What is Element?

Element: “Element is a completely new type of messaging and collaboration that enables people, communities and organisations to keep control and ownership of their data and messages. Imagine a messaging app (such as WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram) combined with a collaboration tool (think Slack or Microsoft Teams) but with better data ownership, stronger security and an open network, instead of a traditional ‘walled garden’ approach.

“Element can do all this because, unlike most messaging apps and collaboration tools, it is decentralised and based on the Matrix open standard for secure, decentralised, real-time communication.”

How has workplace communication and collaboration changed over the past few months and how could it change in the future?

“Businesses quickly stepped-up their use of communication and collaboration applications such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, and turned a blind eye to consumer-grade apps like WhatsApp and Zoom to keep employees connected while working from home.

“Companies soon realised their sensitive data and discussions were ending up in consumer-grade apps, subject to data mining, as well as losing their audit trail around decision-making. Basic security issues, such as ‘Zoom bombing’ is also a serious headache for companies.

“As we come into a more stable reaction towards Covid-19, businesses are realising even the most popular collaboration and messaging apps aren’t immune from privacy failures and are now taking action. Moving forward, businesses will begin to implement secure communication and collaboration applications to keep communications and data secure while adapting to ‘hybrid working’, where employees switch between working from home and the office.”

How does Element differ from some of the other platforms?

“Element is a combined messaging app and collaboration tool. It offers the benefits of a messaging application (fast, effective encrypted communication) and the advantages of a collaboration tool (shared working spaces).

“Traditional messaging apps (such as iMessage Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp) and collaboration tools (such as Slack) are centralised systems which means users’ data can only be kept on the vendor’s system.

“Element is different because it is decentralised, which enables users to choose where their data and messages are stored – including on their own hardware or in a cloud environment of their own choosing.

“Such ‘digital sovereignty’ (being able to own your data and where it resides) is possible because Element operates on an open, decentralised communication network called Matrix.

“Being based on an open network, Element makes it incredibly easy for people from different organisations to collaborate. There are no additional costs, and no administration hassles for the IT team. Element automatically works with any other Matrix-based system and can ‘bridge’ into traditional tools such as Slack.

“Element also offers end-to-end encryption by default, with cross-signed device verification to protect against eavesdropping and imposters. In short, Element is unique.”

“Users own their own data”- what does this mean in practice?

“Most messaging apps and collaboration tools are centralised which means the vendor controls everything. Your data and messages are kept inside their proprietary system.

“Element’s decentralised approach enables organisations to participate in a global open network, but to do so while retaining their independence to host and manage their own data.

“Organisations are free to choose their own deployment solution (including on-premise and cloud), so they can be sure where their data and messages are stored (and in which countries) and whose control it is under.

“So an organisation can choose where and how its data and messages are stored, and know that their messages are protected by end-to-end encryption (traditional collaboration don’t offer end-to-end encryption).

“By having a combined messaging app and collaboration tool, an organisation also eliminates the issues of consumer-grade messaging apps being used in the workplace.”

What are some of the issues with platforms that do not operate in this way?

“The main issue is a loss of control. Centralised, proprietary systems keep users’ data within their own systems which raises a series of issues.

“Messaging apps are consumer-grade centralised systems and the service provider owns the entire IT stack. The cost of ‘free’ is that the users are the product. The service provider can mine data to learn more about – and profit from – their users. No organisation that is serious about privacy is comfortable with its workforce using consumer-grade messaging apps.

“These centralised service providers hold so much data that they are vulnerable to both criminal and government interest, prompting multiple attacks and efforts to implement routine surveillance. This raises the issues of data ownership, residency and jurisdiction.

“Big centralised systems usually have a lack of clarity around security and privacy. For example, traditional collaboration tools highlight that data is encrypted ‘in transit and at rest’ but that is a long way from the protection offered by genuine end-to-end encryption.

“Equally, it’s difficult for an end-user company to know exactly what agreements the service provider has in place around third party access and there are considerable unknowns as a result of the European Court of Justice’s ruling on Privacy Shield.”


Read More: Salesforce launches virtual tools for remote sales teams.


 

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