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Bitcoin Hardware Wallet, KeepKey, Builds On Trezors Security

27 Jul 2015, 00:00, ,

KeepKey is an upcoming hardware wallet that will use the same firmware as the Trezor wallet, but upgrades its' beauty, simplicity, and security.

In the of world of bitcoin hardware wallets, there are three tiers of product. For people looking for a storage solution that is inexpensive, and who are willing to sacrifice features but not security, there are a handful of stripped down models including the $32 Ledger.

On the other end of the scale a fully featured wallet, like the $200 Case, has a biometric reader, multisignature signing by default, and connects directly to cell phone towers so you don’t even need to connect it to a smart phone or computer in order to use it. At this time, Case shares that top-of-the-line wallet status with nobody, although competition from Mycelium and Butterfly Labs have both been in the works for some time.

Right in the middle of these two tiers is a price point where the first hardware wallet resides, the $119 Trezor. This tiny hardware wallet with open source firmware is a respected product in the bitcoin community, and was highly anticipated prior to its launch late last year. It is made of a reinforced plastic providing durability and does a top-notch job of securing and spending your bitcoin stash.

Unfortunately, it’s hardware design leaves some wanting more. First and foremost, the OLED screen on a Trezor is infamously tiny, making all interactions with it a potential strain on the eyes. With a screen not much larger than your thumbnail, reading the Trezor’s screen is required every time you interact with it, and you commonly have to scroll through instructions displayed there in order to do many normal functions with it.

Some people may feel that overall the Trezor unit is too small, implying that it could be easily lost or at least you won’t feel it in your pocket. For a device that could potentially be carrying your life savings on it, this issue could instil a feeling of lesser confidence.

Trezors also have two buttons on their front to navigate through its functions. As Apple Inc. have demonstrated over the last 2 decades, with the lowly computer mouse, if you can do something with one button then using two can add confusion. There is peace of mind in only having one button to press, because a you cannot press the wrong button. Until now we didn’t know that Trezor’s functions could be used with just one button, but it turns out they can.

KeepKey was made to address all of these Trezor problems, and it looks like a high-end, luxury item while doing so. This hardware wallet uses the exact same open-source firmware that Trezor uses, proving that you can do everything as securely as a Trezor does with added simplicity and style.

While the price and launch date haven’t yet been announced, the founder of KeepKey, Darin Stanchfield, assured us in an exclusive interview that the price will be set before they start taking orders and shipping, and they will be ready to do so “soon.”

“We are in the last stages of final assembly on production units… We won’t be taking any orders for KeepKey until we have them in-hand, packaged, and ready to be shipped. We do not believe in pre-ordering.”
— – Darin Stanchfield, KeepKey Founder

At launch the KeepKey wallet will be sold only from their website, and only for bitcoin. They will be shipping them globally, “although there are countries where we won’t be able to ship to, due to US export regulations.” Soon afterwards, however, they have more ambitious sales arrangements in the works.

“We plan to distribute the product through larger e-commerce partners if you want to use a credit card.”
— – Stanchfield

While the KeepKey is a totally new hardware design, the firmware it runs is every bit as trustworthy as Trezor’s firmware, since they are indeed the same code. “KeepKey also incorporates Trezor v1.3.3 source code, which is market proven,” Stanchfield told us.

Twice as thick and a third longer than a Trezor,  the size of this device should make it more satisfying to hold. However, the real draw is the 256×64 3.12″ OLED, compared to the Trezzor OLED with 128×64 pixels. The screen sits behind a polycarbonate front that wraps from edge to edge of the unit, forcing a mental comparison between a modern iPhone and a small feature phone from the 90’s.

“There first reason why a display is needed on a device like KeepKey is to see the details of the transaction that is being signed. A small screen is counter-productive to reviewing transactions. When reviewing transaction details causes eye strain, it makes you lazy and start being less careful. KeepKey displays everything in a large crisp font. You don’t even have to pick up the device from the desk to check that the transaction is correct.”
— – Stanchfield

Display clarity may be a larger issue than many would give it credit for. Seeing the recovery seed clearly, so that it can be written down without mistakes, could make all the difference in the world to you down the line. This code is made of 12,18 or 24 words depending on your choice, and is generated the first time you run the device. As it’s used to recover the devices contents, including private keys and the wallet balance, a mistake in recording the seed will result in losing everything stored on it.

“The flip side to this extreme level of security is that if you forget your passphrase your bitcoins are lost. Really lost!"
— – MyTrezor

For comparison, here’s a picture of the Trezor’s screen during the recovery seed phrase backup process; note that you have to write each word down and then push a button to see the next one, causing a long process in order to safely backup your entire wallet:

The same process for the KeepKey is clearly faster, less confusing, and therefore safer at the same time.

Besides the screen size, another way in which the two units differ is that KeepKey takes less time to use during a transaction. From an unattached starting point, Stanchfield tells us that it only takes 5 to 10 seconds to complete a transaction, including entering the PIN number.

Using both of these devices is simple, but requires another device like a smart phone or a computer to run a wallet program on. Unlike a process where you simply keep your private key inside your software wallet stored on the computer itself, using these hardware wallets to hold your key separately makes private keys completely safe from hacks, malware, and viruses.

“TREZOR is a single-purpose computer, which stores your private keys and actively signs transactions without sending your private keys to the computer […] you can use TREZOR even on a vulnerable or hacked computer.”
— – Trezor

With both Trezor and KeepKey, you simply connect them at the time you want to move money, enter a pin number, and then click a button to complete the transaction. Your private key is only used inside these hardware wallets to authorize transactions, and simply doesn’t travel over the wire onto your other machine. The PIN number it requires is also a strong theft deterrent, rendering the device useless if it is physically stolen.

Should either device fall into the wrong hands, and the PIN is not known, thieves won’t be able to brute force the number by trying lots of combinations. After three failed attempts at entering the PIN, the time you have to wait before trying doubles.

“It’s an exponential curve, so by the 15th attempt they have to wait 2 hours. On the 27th attempt it’s at 388 days. And there is nothing the attacker can do to get around the delay, including unplugging the device.”
— – Stanchfield

Another great feature both share is that you can use a private key on these devices to verify your identity and sign messages and the process is a lot like sending bitcoin. Instead of the unit telling your wallet that money is authorized to change hands, it can tell compatible websites and applications that you are indeed the person you say you are.

KeepKey has been tested on PC, Mac, and Linux and has a Chrome extension on each. Using a Hierarchical Deterministic wallet structure, any number of keys can be saved and used on it, and that includes keys for other digital currencies, including Litecoin and Dogecoin.

The durability of these units has also been tested, and they’ve withstood drops from desks and standing height just fine, as well as the full emission, radiation, and shock testing required for small electronics like this in the US. According to Stanchfield, no units have been broken during testing at all.

Often times it can take notoriously long for batches of new electronics to be produced and readied for shipping. Trezor took well over a year to roll out the final product after its initial crowdfunding campaign, and they had many levels of pre-order roll-outs before the full release. Most bitcoin mining chip companies do this too, and the industry has been plagued with delays and missed delivery dates.

“I would say that most production problems come from bad planning and poor choice in partners. I think we are good on both those fronts. We also have very good relationships with our suppliers.”
— – Stanchfield

KeepKey is attempting to buck the trend, by partnering with a local manufacturer in the US. They can drive over any time they need to and work closely with their producers. “I can’t say enough great things about them. The lead times are in days, not weeks or months. We do have some parts with longer lead times (like our aluminum enclosure), but we plan to keep a buffer in inventory,” explained Stanchfield.

It has yet to be seen if KeepKey will attract the high price point that good design targets, but at the very least they are taking a step in the right direction. Building on the Trezor firmware  makes very high levels of security easier to understand for every bitcoin user.


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