Buro - A Data Desk

Medieval monks dined communally around long narrow tables, often with trestles so the monks could pack in without bashing their knees on leg posts.

These tables became known as refectory tables after the rooms in which the monks ate. Fashionable from 16th Century Italy to the Bisto Family the refectory table carries a clear meaning in its genes; this is communal, collegiate and a piece of furniture. Today at Opendesk we sell many refectory table style office desks to businesses who, like medieval monasteries, have small close knit teams who beaver away with a common purpose.

Picture of a co-working space using an original Opendesk in Mexico, made by Ensambleria team
An original desk in plywood designed by Opendesk in London and made locally

But there are other kinds of desk, desks with histories of privacy and secrecy, desks designed for secure communication and desks that held information safe from prying eyes. A brass bound campaign writing box held military secrets safe, a lawyer’s roll top desk held envelopes, tape and sealing wax to ensure the integrity of private communications and every personal desk had a lock and key because … well because your stuff was yours and desks were where you kept your stuff.

Flash forward from all this mahogany and brass to the 21st century, where do you keep your stuff now? With Condoleezza Rice on the board of Dropbox and Snowden confirming all the conspiracy theories, maybe you could keep your stuff safe in your desk again.

Buro is an an experiment, our reimagining of the Victorian bureau for the 21st century, a place for the modern lady or gentleman to keep their files. Buro acts like a personal Dropbox, providing sync, backup and encrypted peer-to-peer file sharing. We have used a Raspberry Pi running the amazing syncthing sync software and an SSD drive to give Buro a quiet and compact file store built into the desk itself.

Close look of an Opendesk and a Raspberry PI
Picture of an Olivia Desk redesigned as a Smart Desk with LED light and integreated printing system

For a desk to perform these data security duties in the age of cryptography it needs something new for a piece of furniture, it needs an identity. The cryptography used by Buro, and you on your computer every day, uses public-key cryptography to secure communications. To use this form of encryption every user has a unique, secret private key, a short text file that is the modern equivalent of victorian steel and brass. However unlike your laptop which holds your private keys that uniquely identify you, Buro has been given its own keys and hence its own digital identity.

Armed with its keys Buro can use Synching to securely hold onto copies of files for its clients, pass copies of files between clients and potentially to other desks. Buro could even use its keys to ensure encrypted off site backups of data with a trusted third party service such as tarsnap.

A parting thought for the lawyers. Such a desk could hold data that several people could access, but none of them have access to all the data nor know the desks private key. It is quite technically possible for data to be under the control of an inanimate piece of furniture with a digital identity. If served with a notice to hand over its private keys by a court how might a desk be expected to respond? Would its owner be incarcerated like the owner of a dog biting a child in public, or might a desk be more like a cat, whose unruly ways mean that no one can be held to account for its transgressions?