Bitcoin Lady Alena Vranova on Her Past with Trezor Wallet, Today’s Role at Casa and New Methods of Protecting Private Keys
She is well versed in economics and finance and driving a motorcycle, but, most importantly, she loves Bitcoin with all her heart. A professional in marketing and business development, Alena Vranova is a co-founder and former CEO of SatoshiLabs, one of the oldest companies in the Bitcoin industry best known for its Trezor hardware wallet.
Today, Alena Vranova is the Head Strategy and Business Development at Casa, a US-based company working in the field of cryptocurrency assets security and the provider of hardware Bitcoin and Lightning Network full nodes.
In an interview with ForkLog, Alena Vranova tells how she came to Bitcoin and started things at SatoshiLabs, also she shares some details about her current work at Casa and the solutions the company is offering in the field of private key protection and the development of multisig systems.
ForkLog: Hello Alena, who those who might not know who you are, will tell a little bit about yourself?
Alena Vranova: I come from Czechoslovakia and live in Prague since 2002. For the first ten years of my business carrier I was a business developer in the field of banking and insurance. I was quite successful in this business creating the first franchise network of insurance brokers and financial advisors and consolidating the market into a platform called INSIA, which was later acquired by Marsh, the largest insurance broker in the world.
I continued to launch new business projects until 2010, when I decided to study diplomacy, geopolitics, and international monetary system. This was because the crisis was happening and I realized that I was working in financial business but had no real understanding of money and power and how they work together. So I went to studies while also working in Société Générale, one of the big banking groups, just to find out what could be a good form of money. Money has been of big interest to me, and I was writing a thesis about international monetary system in the current imbalances understanding that one country cannot issue international money without bad consequences for the market participants
I was also researching different forms of local currencies, LETS systems, or the Special Drawing Rights (SDR), which is the project of International Monetary Fund. That’s when I found out about Bitcoin.
ForkLog: What exactly brought you to the crypto space?
Alena Vranova: The first moment was that I realized that there was something like Bitcoin, and that it could be a global peer-to-peer transactional ledger, that it could be the better global money. By global money I mean a global reserve currency, just like dollar which is the number reserve one currency. 60 percent of all reserves are denominated by central banks in U.S. dollars. So what I thought that maybe the future of the global currency is really a peer-to-peer reserve that is globally available and will have a plethora of purpose-specific and location-specific cryptocurrencies that will be easily interchangeable.
So my interest in Bitcoin was, let’s say, purely academic at the beginning. It was not mining or coding, I was purely interested in the concept of money and the monetary theory.
ForkLog: Most people in the crypto space know you from your time at SatoshiLabs. How the idea of establishing this company was born? There are several projects under one roof, right?
Alena Vranova: In 2011 there was the first Bitcoin conference happening in Europe, in Prague. There I met Marek ‘Slush’ Palatinus who was running the first mining pool, but we didn’t continue to communicate until two years later. In 2013 he told me about the idea of a hardware wallet and the research they’ve been doing on it with Pavol ‘Stick’ Rusnak. Actually, the idea of a hardware wallet was older, in 2011 there was a presentation of a German professor who was trying to create such a wallet with his students, but somehow he failed.
So later on Slush and Stick, who is the founder of the first hackerspace in Prague, combined a set of their skills and started working on a hardware wallet. When I started to talk to them, they were already working on the project for two or three months. I said that I wanted to help them a little, to kick-start the project, to do some marketing, budgeting and other things.
Initially I was doing it only at nights though, since I still had my job at Société Générale. For nine months or so we were meeting in the evenings and were working together until early mornings. Ultimately I said to myself that I am either going to die (laughs) or burn out, because it was impossible to continue working like this. So I decided to quit the traditional finance and start working in Bitcoin space full time.
ForkLog: What was your best achievement while at SatoshiLabs?
Alena Vranova: Probably, to make it happen. But it wouldn’t happen without Marek and Pavol, who are really talented in what they do and they did a really amazing job with inventing a hardware wallet. They have invented several concepts and standards that have been adopted, such as BIP-39 for example, in many other wallets and services (BIP 39 describes the implementation of a mnemonic seed backup).
It was their role, and I was a person with much more business experience. I am a licensed marketing and PR professional, a more executive person in the game. We wanted Trezor Wallet not to be just another nerdy gadget, but rather to make it easy for everyone to keep their Bitcoins safe. What I was basically doing was to take all the unnecessary burden off their shoulders so that they would not be distracted from the development.
ForkLog: Was there any unfinished work that made you feel disappointed?
Alena Vranova: Of course. I wanted to create more security applications on top of Trezor, because when you think of it, even though the main goal was to secure Bitcoins, it’s not a Bitcoin hardware wallet but rather a little computer keeping the cryptographic keys offline. This means it is secured against digital risks and easy to use, it’s physical, has a little preview screen and buttons to interact with. It can also support a lot of encryption standards. That makes Trezor a general purpose encryption device.
We successfully created some showcase implementations like Trezor Password Manager for example. My thought was that if we can encrypt anything then we can also encrypt much more. The team also came up with the SSH login and GPG key support. There were a lot of other things that I found fascinating and I thought that in the future every single person on this planet that is living in the cyberspace will need to protect their crypto keys for many applications with their own Trezor.
That was my vision, while my partners, Marek and Pavol, wanted to focus purely on security of Trezor, which of course also makes sense. Still, I have learnt a lot about hardware devices and how they are manufactured, because when we were starting the company none of us had any experience whatsoever with producing electronics.
ForkLog: What were the main reasons behind your decision to leave SatoshiLabs?
Alena Vranova: We had some differences about the ways we go forward, and for me, every project that I do starts from zero and finishes when it is established, successful and profitable. For me it was mission completed. I usually take a short break, between six or twelve month to think over things, get new inspiration, see the bigger picture before moving ahead to something new.
Trezor established a fundamental part of the Bitcoin ecosystem and started the entire market of hardware wallets. This has realigned Bitcoin with its basic principles of private money, a peer-to-peer tool, because when we have the keys secured on individual level we can transact in accordance with Bitcoin’s basic principles.
ForkLog: New inventions often bring new risks and challenges. What are these with hardware wallets?
Alena Vranova: Exactly, it introduced some new risks and new restriction layer, because suddenly you have user protecting potentially millions of dollars, but he is not used to do that. All of the sudden he has some 12 or 24 words to protect, and that’s a completely new experience. The seed backups can get compromised, someone can copy your seed unless you are an advanced user who can add additional password encryption, or people just forget their passphrases or lose their seed backups.
Besides that, in the past few years we saw an increase of physical attacks on people holding crypto. So it’s not just hackers putting your digital wealth at risk, it’s burglars, but also basic human mistakes.
ForkLog: Eventually you took the position of Head of Strategy at Casa, the company known for its proprietary hardware node for Lightning Network and Bitcoin. Was it an easy decision?
Alena Vranova: Yes, last year I met Jeremy Welch, the founder of Casa, and started to discuss ideas to build things on top of hardware wallets. I loved the fact that they are using Trezor and Ledger in their multisig app Keymaster and that their multisig scheme does completely away with the recovery seeds, first, and second, that it protects you against physical threats and human errors. Casa works with a multisig system where you have several hardware wallets spread across different locations which you have to access in order to send the money.
I thought this was very interesting and saw that our ideas about future products were very much in line, and since that I started working on Casa’s strategy.
ForkLog: Initially Casa was focusing on premium concierge services for wealthy crypto people, which puts certain limitations to a broader user base. Do you plan to make your products more affordable for regular users?
Alena Vranova: Our team’s philosophy is about creating software and hardware systems and services for people to able to manage their own funds. Today in crypto you are either completely on your own and have to learn cryptography and advanced procedures to backup your keys, or you give you coins away to Bitcoin “banks”. There was nothing in between, and what Casa does is bridging this gap. We are trying to establish everything that is needed to allow people to take back their assets and privacy, to take back their data.
Our overall mission is to support sovereign and safe individuals building our membership services around the Keymaster app, which was launched a year ago. It’s a key manager (not a wallet as we are not holding anyone’s funds), which allows you to easily set up a multisig for your Bitcoin holdings. It can be downloaded for free (Silver membership), but we also have several paid tiers of membership with higher security levels and personalized client advisory. A necessary component to the sovereignty of our users is the ability to run their own validation and not depend on Casa. That’s why we also introduced the Casa Node, a plug & play device to run Bitcoin full node and Lightning Network. All the pieces of a puzzle that we are building will eventually connect in one concise experience.
Our typical clients range from small bitcoin owners to high net worth individuals, early Bitcoiners, Bitcoin companies, hedge funds and family offices. We are not offering institutional solutions for large banks and the likes. Our customers are individuals or small teams that transaction-wise have relatively different needs than the institutional organizations.
ForkLog: All this sounds pretty good for wealthy people, but what about a broader user base?
Alena Vranova: Well, we started with high net worth individuals, and when the service was launched we were charging $10,000 a year. That’s not the case anymore, the plan was always to expand the range of products and services so that we could make Casa accessible for everyone. If you look at our web-site you can see different subscription plans, including Silver membership which is completely free. All you need to have is your mobile phone, the Keymaster app, and if you want to use a basic 2 of 3 multsig you may take your old hardware wallet and set up an operational and secure keyset. And it’s free, because we want everyone to start using multisig. It’s a great technology, but it has not been very easy before Casa to set it up, to maintain and to make sure that all the keys are working was very demanding even for technically skilled people. There just was no good implementation.
ForkLog: You have some highly respected engineers at Casa, just to mention Jameson Lopp, so one would expect you create some really unique solutions. What makes Casa products different from the rest?
Alena Vranova: If you look at the Keymaster, it is visual, it is showing you your multisig keys. If you lose a key you can mark it as compromised and make a replacement of that key within just one or two minutes. Before that you would have to go through some pain to do a recovery, so we came up with a new concept.
A recovery phrase, those 12 or 24 words, is a weak point because people struggle protecting it, they don’t know where to keep it to make sure nobody steals it, takes a photo of it etc. It’s a single point of failure. If you want to avoid the SPoF, you can set up a multisig with different hardware wallets but that would normally mean that you have five key devices and five recovery seeds, and that’s a bit too many items to protect.
So at Casa we got rid of the recovery seed completely, our users don’t have to write them down, and in case of a loss the applications helps them to set up a full new multisig in just a few steps.
ForkLog: What other principles does Casa stand by?
Alena Vranova: We have our 7 guiding principles but everything is basically laid up on the vision of self-sovereign customers. Even in the case that Casa as a company would disappear, we want to make sure that our customers can take their funds with them. We build so we can’t be evil. Google once had the “Don’t be evil” principle, but then they abandoned it. We adjusted to “Can’t be evil.”
This means that we can never touch the funds of our customers and they can always walk away with their money. But the important thing is that they don’t need to worry about the technical side, to worry about their security.
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