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What is the Trusted Data Format (TDF), And How Does It Work?

January 26, 2015

What makes Virtru’s client-side email encryption tick? An important component of the Virtru story is the Trusted Data Format (TDF), an open standard for securing all kinds of content. Invented by Will Ackerly, Virtru Co-Founder and CTO, the Trusted Data Format allows fine-grained access control for files and attachments, including emails, PDFs, Office files, photos and videos.

Invented to protect the most sensitive data shared between intelligence agencies, the Trusted Data Format is now available for anyone to use to protect the privacy of their emails and other stored data. It also forms the backbone of how Virtru works to encrypt and protect email messages and files.

How the Trusted Data Format Came to Be

They say necessity is the mother of all inventions, and the Trusted Data Format was invented based on a need for flexibility. Most encryption methods aren’t universal, so what works for images isn’t necessarily going to work for email, and what works for PDFs might not quite work for raw data. This makes any project that involves collaboration between multiple parties, with multiple file types, difficult — especially if you’re dealing with sensitive data.

Nobody knows sensitive data quite like intelligence agencies. In his time working for the NSA, Will Ackerly noticed there was no easy way to send files from one intelligence agency to another. “One agency would produce reports, another might be producing images, and another might be producing more structured data, even weather data. In the past, each time you had something new to protect, there was a new way of locking it down. There wasn’t a generic wrapper,” he says. “I looked around at what was available publicly to see if there was a PDF or zip file that could achieve this goal. The answer was no, there wasn’t.”

Another challenge was to make the method accessible for a wide variety of users, says Ackerly. “A lot of what we built didn’t complement or work with mission needs. Often it got in the way. A lot of neat crypto ideas didn’t make it into the field because the people getting the mission job couldn’t use it, both in intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense.”

So he took matters into his own hands — and the idea for the Trusted Data Format was born. “What I set out to do was write a wrapper that could solve these security issues in a way that could be used by anyone. My motivation is that if it was proprietary, or couldn’t be used by anyone, it wouldn’t be widely deployed.”

After developing the Trusted Data Format, Ackerly realized that the format offered a ton of value beyond government agencies, and sought to make it available for individual use. “I took that opportunity to leave the government and focus on a public effort to solve similar problems for individuals. Luckily, because TDF was public, and made no assumptions about people using it, it was a good candidate to turn into something anyone can use.” Will and the Virtru team, brought TDF mainstream.

How the Trusted Data Format Works with Virtru

The Trusted Data Format is essentially a protective wrapper containing your content. Whether you’re sending an email message, an Excel spreadsheet or a cat photo, your files are encrypted and “wrapped” into a TDF file, which communicates with Virtru-enabled key stores to maintain access privileges. When the email recipient attempts to open the message and attachments, the TDF wrapper communicates with the Virtru server and verifies whether the receiver is eligible to access the data. Once verified, they can decrypt, open and read the files.

The principles that led to the invention of the Trusted Data Format — a strong, but flexible privacy and encryption standard that could be used easily by a wide variety of users — are the same factors that drove Virtru to create a streamlined, easy-to-use client-side email encryption service. To see how easily you can protect your files with the Trusted Data Format and improve your email privacy, download Virtru today.

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