From your photos to your location: "structured encryption" could be the next big thing in privacy protection

Pixek is a photo app that encrypts users' digital photos to keep them private. Its underlying technology called "structured encryption" could be used in such a way that companies would still be able to process user data without compromising their privacy.

In the digital age of smartphones and flattering photo filters, everyone is a photographer. Our smartphones have become a treasure trove of photos that we took to document the memorable moments of our lives. So imagine the shock if you lose or accidentally destroy your phone.

Pixek is a photo app that encrypts all your digital photos to keep them private (Pixek )

One way to address this fear is to backup your photos on the cloud — something you could do with Google Photos or Apple's iCloud Photo Library. Except there are problems with that solution: hackers and many tech companies may be combing through your personal photos. 

A new photo app called Pixek says it's addressing all of these problems. It backs up its users' phone photos online, and it's also end-to-end encrypted, which means nobody can see them, except the user.

Seny Kamara is an associate professor of computer science at Brown University and the co-creator of Pixek. He developed the app together with Tarik Moataz and Martin Zhu from Brown University. 

"The only way to access the photos," Seny said, "is through an encryption key." The key is generated on the user's phone and is also made retrievable online once the user correctly answers a set of security questions.

Besides Pixek, apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger also use end-to-end encryption to secure the billions of messages passing through its servers everyday. The real innovation behind Pixek, according to Seny, is its search function, which lets users search through their encrypted photos by keyword. The underlying technology enabling that is called "structured encryption" and it keeps the users' queries secret for maximum privacy.

Seny Kamara is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Brown University and the co-creator of Pixek (Seny Kamara )

Many tech companies aren't yet familiar with structured encryption, Seny said. But there are different scenarios that people can use it, such as searching encrypted emails or large databases, which apps rely on heavily to process large quantities of information.

These databases could be encrypted and backed up in the cloud, Seny explained, but cloud providers would still be able to process this overall data while keeping user information private.

Pixek is currently in its testing phase, but Seny said it should be available to the wider public this summer.