Cryptography inspires all types of people to create. One such creator is Eric Anderson, the founder of a decentralized privacy platform called Promether. He and his team are currently building a secure messaging system called Contact to run on top of this platform. Eric, known as “Eijah” in the hacker community, left his role as both a security portfolio manager for American Express and a lead developer for Rockstar Games to pursue a wholly different agenda. His motivation – frustration with inadequate technological solutions – led him to hack Blu-ray encryption before founding both Promether and a proto-concept project called Demonsaw.
Eric’s approach to life, though it seems unconventional, echos a common feeling: when we get too complacent, we get bored. Eric gets bored easily, making his tendency to move rapidly from one singular focus to the next a hallmark of his life. He’s jumped from one pursuit to the next, but the one constant throughout has been a decision to sacrifice a work-life balance in order to fully devote himself to the task at hand. “Sacrifice is required for success,” he tells me.
From Spanish to C++
Part of Eric’s strong motivation seems rooted in a fear of stagnation. He continually describes his life as striving for the next level of challenge. In college, this need for mastery led him to learn four different languages while pursuing a BA in Spanish. “I quickly got bored of learning how many ways I could say apple in different languages.” It was the structure of language that interested him. The grammar, syntax, and rules of language learning bridged his transition into learning programming languages, starting with C and followed by C++.
Eventually, Eric decided to pursue a master’s degree in computer science, and in spite of his social sciences background, he tested into a program at Arizona State University. Eric started working with American Express while he was still in school and accepted a full-time role with them after graduation.
Though he enjoyed the company, Eric started to feel stunted in his role within it. He felt he wasn’t growing because his work limited him to the most basic aspects of being a developer. If there was a pyramid of devs by skill set, Eric was at the bottom, stating: “Programmers for American Express weren’t real programmers or security experts. They were basically faking it; they were pretending to be master-level experts when they in reality did very little. I wasn’t getting enough programming experience or being challenged. At the top of the pyramid, the only people that were mastering what they were doing were game developers and hackers.”
Becoming a Hacker
Lack of fulfillment at work meant Eric came home to tinker with things, experimenting on electronics projects, playing Xbox, and looking for things to do. During this free time, Eric heard about a peripheral drive for his Xbox that would allow him to watch HD Blu-ray DVDs using his Xbox drive, and he purchased it. He also found out that the drive should be compatible with his desktop computer, allowing him to also watch HD-DVDs by adding a Toshiba driver.
After he bought that extra driver, he had all the software and hardware legally needed to watch HD disks on either his Xbox or computer – or so he thought. “I’d done everything right, and bought everything legally, but when I went to use the software to watch movies on the computer, it suddenly down-resed from 1080p to 480p.” Eric was upset, as from his perspective, he’d followed the rules only to be punished because of the age of his monitor.
To truly experience the full story of Eric’s hack, Episode 16 of Darknet Diaries features an interview with Eric, much of it in his own words. In the episode, Eric describes feeling powerless and deciding to take things into his own hands: “Sometimes it falls on us to just decide we’re going to change the world, to decide that we’re going to take a stand, to decide that we’re fed up…” It was this breaking point that sparked his long journey to eventually breaking Blu-ray encryption.
A secret hacker group reached out to him after the hack, transforming a hack that had started with personal frustration into a unifier with others with similar mindsets. That outreach was what brought him into the fold of the larger hacker community at DEF CON, where he’s spoken for the last five years. Each year, Eric addresses hackers on the importance of privacy and security, emphasizing the idea of rejecting the status quo and circumventing authorities in the name of our privacy and freedom by hacking around the problems.
Lessons in File Sharing
After several successful years as a game developer for Activision and Rockstar Games, Eric’s built this passion for privacy and security into Demonsaw and Promether. (He worked on Guitar Hero 5 and 6, Max Pain 3, Grand Theft Auto 5 and 6, and Red Dead Redemption 2.)
In 2013, Eric thought he’d spend a month working on a better file sharing architecture. In his words, “There’s nothing that allows you to share files without any fear of being logged or surveilled by a network architecture; that is totally wrong.” A month became 10 months working on the testnet. In 2014, Eric launched a program called Demonsaw, a decentralized, secure and anonymous file sharing app that circumnavigates DMCA notices and protects privacy. His big lesson from Demonsaw was that interfaces have to be simple for people to want to use a product. “I’m not a user interface developer, and the Demonsaw interface was atrocious.”
Today, Eric is working on a privacy solution he’s wrapped in a more sexy sell for average consumers who are often unaware or uninterested in their security and privacy. Eric is working on Promether, a privacy network, with a decentralized secure messaging app as its first milestone.
Eric briefly partnered with controversial crypto leader John McAfee last year, describing the outcome as a learning experience. “His vision is no longer accurate and I wouldn’t conform to his thinking, but I learned from him; mostly I learned what not to do.”
“I’ve followed my passion for privacy; what I’m doing isn’t about financial reward, but rather about creating security combined with usability.” Eric is designing Promether to offer a simple interface for general users with advanced features for people seeking the highest security and privacy standards. “Privacy doesn’t sell, and no one wants to pay for it,” he says. “People understand convenience.” Therefore, Eric is creating a project bringing advanced privacy tucked into a convenient and intuitive interface.
“Companies, like programmers, are lazy, preferring a straight line over a Merkle tree.” Eric and his project Promether promise something different, and the outcome awaits.