Over the years there have been several attempts to build
distributed anonymous storage systems—usually they start with a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol not entirely unlike BitTorrent, and then build some combination of indexing, replication, encryption, and anonymity on top. All have at least one clever idea. None has achieved world domination. (We’ll know someone’s finally gotten it right when the web browsers start shipping native support for their protocol.)
Tangler is a relatively old example, and its one clever idea is what they call document entanglement. To understand document entanglement you have to know about something called
-of- secret sharing. This is a mathematical technique that converts a secret into shares. Each share is the same size as the original secret, possibly plus a little overhead. Anyone who has a copy of of those shares can reconstruct the original secret, but if they have even just one fewer, they can’t. and can be chosen arbitrarily. Secret sharing is normally not used for large secrets (like an entire document) because each share is the same size as the original, so you’ve just increased your overall storage requirement times—but in a distributed document store like Tangler, you were going to do that anyway, because the document should remain retrievable even if some of the peers holding shares drop out of the network.
Document entanglement, then, is secret sharing with a clever twist: you arrange to have some of the shares of your document be the same bitstring as existing shares for other documents. This is always mathematically possible, as long as fewer than existing shares are used. This reduces the amount of data added to the system by each new document, but more importantly, it makes the correspondence between shares and documents many-to-many instead of many-to-one. Thus, operators can honestly say they do not know which documents are backed by which shares, and they have an incentive not to cooperate with deletion requests, since deleting one document may render many other documents inaccessible.
I am not convinced entanglement actually provides the security benefit claimed; deleting all of the shares belonging to one document should cause other documents to lose no more than one share and thus not be permanently damaged. (The originators of those documents would of course want to generate new shares to preserve redundancy.) It is still probably worth doing just because it reduces the cost of adding new documents to the system, but security-wise it’s solving the wrong problem. What you really want here is: server operators should be unable to determine which documents they hold shares for, even if they know the metadata for those documents. (And yet, somehow, they must be able to hand out the right shares on request!) Similar things are possible, under the name private information retrieval, and people are trying to apply that to anonymous publication, but what I said one really wants here is even stronger than the usual definition of PIR, and I’m not sure it’s theoretically possible.