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Lens startup focuses on cloud-free online privacy

Mark Chavez, one of the tech gurus who helped build salesforce.com into a global cloud platform for businesses valued today at $90 billion, is now working to unplug people from the cloud.

The Albuquerque native had a Eureka! moment in a London restaurant early last year that convinced him the best way to guarantee online privacy for individuals and enterprises is to entirely unplug from today’s cloud-based communications network.

Lens co-founder and CEO Mark Chavez talks with company intern Kyle Guin at the Lobo Rainforest Building at the Innovate ABQ research and development site Downtown, where Lens is located. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Now, he’s back in Albuquerque with a new startup, Lens, to build the technology and services to make it happen. The company expects to begin beta testing this summer on the first prototype of a new device that will provide users direct, peer-to-peer online communications completely independent of social media platforms like Facebook, Google and YouTube.

Once using the Lens device and service, users will have total control over all their personal data, and companies that want to see it will have to pay the individual for access, Chavez said. He calls it a “lumen device,” meaning just one entry and exit gateway for all information to flow in or out of a user’s “Lens,” with the individual acting as gatekeeper for anyone interested in seeing it.

“It’s a completely new starting point, a shift from the cloud, to a new era we call Light,” Chavez said. “Our starting point is the construction of an autonomous data vehicle for the individual – a lumen. It provides the tools and services for an individual to be completely free of having to use cloud platforms for digital services and experience.”

Chavez says it’s a matter of eliminating the “platform middlemen” like Facebook and Twitter that provide all the online connections for users today while harvesting mounds of personal data about every individual or enterprise that uses those connections.

That could attract users worldwide, given the public backlash over a recent Facebook scandal where Cambridge Analytica gathered personal information from some 90 million Facebook users that was later used to influence voter opinions in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. In response, every major cloud-based social media service is working to change the way personal data is collected and shared to give users more control.

Lens Chief Technology Officer Cody Eilar, left, and CEO Mark Chavez work on the company’s new device and service, which facilitates direct online connections among people independently of social media websites to protect the privacy of personal data. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“People have no choice today but to accept interaction through social media platforms for digital services and needs, and these platforms have only one goal – to monitor where we spend our time online and harvest all our personal information to then ship it off to market to make billions of dollars on it,” Chavez said. “They engineer those services as addictive platforms to grab our attention and time. Then they sell all the information they gather on number of users and average time spent on a given service or site to advertisers, marketers and others.”

In contrast, the Lens device and service will allow individuals to store all their private information under their sole ownership. The user will control access to, and use of, that information by subscription.

“It’s a one-way license agreement to make companies that want access beholden to you as the owner of your own data,” said Lens Chief Technology Officer Cody Eilar, a computer engineer who left Sandia National Laboratories this year to co-found Lens and help build the technology. “It’s a privacy-by-default solution for people to directly connect to people. They give each other ‘lenses,’ and if a company wants access, they purchase your ‘lens’ and you decide what they have access to.”

The company expects the first device prototype to cost under $100, with Lens service free for users and a new App Store for Light communications. Lens will make its revenue by charging a commission for every subscription a company buys to gain access to a user’s information.

“You make money through subscriptions to your profile, and we make a commission on the side,” Chavez said. “Companies in the future would send a lens purchase request for your name, address and data for say one dollar. You then get a pop-up about it, and you can approve it or not.”

Users can provide access to others free of charge to anyone they want to communicate with, while also limiting that access to only the information they choose to expose, said Kyle Guin, a University of New Mexico student now interning with Lens.

“Say you want to give your mom access to personal information and photos, but not photos of you at a bar, you can block that part,” Guin said. “If you fill out a W-9 form with the IRS, you can let them view only that information. Or if you want to fly to San Diego, you make that publicly available and airlines can solicit that information and ask to send you details on potential flights.”

The enabling technology to create Lens’ lumen device and service already exists.

The company is building its own hardware separate from today’s Android or iPhone technology because those devices are designed to funnel information about users into the cloud, Chavez said. The lumen device provides secure, safe storage of information, while peer-to-peer protocols will establish direct, online connections.

The company has some options to license UNM technology through the Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech-transfer office. That includes digital rights management software for security and verification purposes, and novel identifiers built into computer chips to prevent hackers from tampering with hardware.

UNM’s co-investment fund has pumped $100,000 into the company, alongside private investment by Chavez and others.

For now, Lens is located at the Lobo Rainforest Building at the Innovate ABQ high-tech research and development site Downtown.

The company also has offices and board members in London, where Chavez previously resided, strategically positioning Lens to sell its product in Europe, where a new General Data Protection Regulation took effect in May to enforce individuals’ online privacy rights.

Chavez, however, wants to build the company in New Mexico, where he grew up and became a nuclear engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory before leaving for a successful career as an information technology expert in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

He envisions Lens as the start of a new internet ecosphere that moves people off the cloud and into the “Light,” a place users are no longer lured into addictions to social media websites with little choice about who gathers and uses their data.

“Our goal is to make us the last set of generations to have had no choice but to have our every interaction monitored, harvested and eventually exploited for someone else’s gain,” Chavez said. “We are going to give individuals the choice to interact in a market where they are in control.”

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