Privacy is a simple concept, and many believe it should be a universal right, both on and offline. But figuring out the implications of what you’re sharing online and how to control who has access to your information can require some serious technical expertise. After all, it can be difficult to know the trade-offs you’re making when using online services like Facebook and Google that track your every move.
Enter Thero, a physical prototype that makes changing to encrypted methods of communication as simple as turning a dial on the device’s surface. Meant to give digital privacy protection a tangible form, the device, which was featured recently on Creative Applications, lets users decide when they are visible to online trackers and when they are not–by serving as a physical interface between the computer and the internet.
“The way of using this device is a little bit mysterious, but it’s easy because you don’t need to know complicated hacks to use to preserve your privacy— no apps, no browser plugins, etc.,” says the Spanish designer Román Torre, who designed Thero in collaboration with Ángeles Angulo. “You only need to move the interface to interact with this device.” There are four stages of privacy that twisting the dial on the front of Thero offers: the first institutes some security options but generally open internet access; the second, total traffic encryption using Tor; third, encrypted websites with a total block on social media websites; and lastly, total blackout, where only local navigation through an internal web server is allowed. The four states are accessed by rotating a dial on the front of the device. Thero’s blocky, geometric shape is meant to look a bit like a sculpture that sits easily on your desk, within easy reach when you want to switch from open internet to encrypted browsing.
Thero has been in development over the last year after the Torre and Angulo won the research grant Next Things 2016, which allowed them to spend three months in residence at Spanish cultural center LABoral Centro de Arte and three months at the Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica’s R&D arm.
One prototype they’ve built is made of concrete with 3D-printed parts, and the other is entirely 3D-printed. While Thero remains a prototype, Torre and Angulo hope to continue developing it, with the idea of one day turning it into a commercial product. (Because the project is open source, the specifications for the parts will also be available for download in the future.)
The project underscores the necessity of interface design that allows us to control what we share–and how good design can help people understand and protect themselves.
“We need easy tools that defend us from the abstraction of the internet and preserve our digital and physical spaces from companies and other organizations that are intruding in our lives without our knowledge,” Torre tells Co.Design via email. Of course, there’s also a caveat, as with every digital service: You have to trust that Thero also isn’t tracking everything you do, too.
While digital services might appear to be free to use, many of them require a trade–your personal information, in return for some sort of convenience or entertainment. But Thero makes saying no to digital invasions like these as simple as flipping a switch–no technical knowledge needed.