Edward Snowden’s GCHQ and NSA leaks in 2013 prompted people to think differently about their personal privacy. It was revealed that telephone recordings, emails, and instant messages were being collected en masse.
Surveillance in the digital age is unsettling, but privacy advocates are increasingly frustrated that many people seem not to care.
“It’s a hard sell to people to say, ‘care about what you do on the Internet’,” admitted tech entrepreneur Alex Kontos. “But it’s good to have freedom on the Internet.”
The 22-year-old is developing an alternative web browser called Aegis that focuses on the user’s online privacy. He says he’s not looking to “re-invent the wheel” but is ardent about providing a free and open web, particularly in an era where the end user often becomes the product. To protect user privacy, he won’t be tracking data and there will be no ads.
It’s release is set to be this December, particularly timely – though unintentionally so – with the UK Parliament passing the Investigatory Powers Bill, also known as the Snoopers’ Charter, on November 16th. The Bill will come into effect after receiving Royal Assent.
The Bill legalises a range of surveillance tools that give the government the ability to intercept millions of UK citizens’ communications. It was passed despite criticism from privacy advocates and major technology companies, including Apple.
Kontos said all of the records for people using the Aegis browser, which encrypts traffic, would be “garbled information”, “nonsensical”, and of no use.
But one of the requirements of the new Bill is for Internet companies to log every user’s web browsing history for a year. Several public agencies can access this information, in some cases without a warrant.
“I completely disagree with what’s been passed,” Kontos said. “It’s a bit of a bad situation. I’ll try and fight it if I can, but I’m just one person.”
Aegis is also designed for people under repressive regimes like China and Iran, so journalists, campaigners, and activists can maintain their privacy online without fear of reprimand from the state.
It’s set to run on Tor, which is a popular way to protect online anonymity but is known to be slow. To make things faster, Kontos is planning to set up a private network modelled on Tor, with servers hosted in countries like Iceland and the Netherlands, where he says there won’t be the risk of censorship.
“If even one person uses it and it makes a difference then I couldn’t ask for more. Hopefully I’m not trying to fill in shoes too big because I’m just one person and I don’t want to have my plate too full,” he said.
He sometimes still feels daunted by the popularity of the Waterfox web browser that has around 6 million downloads, and which he coded at the age of 16 purely because he wanted a faster Internet browser.
Born in Cyprus to a Cypriot father and Romanian mother, his interest in computers was sparked by his father, a programmer. He remembers sitting in front of a BBC Micro with his father at age 10.
At 20, he worked on developing a charitable search engine, where half of the ad revenue from searches would be split with charities. He said it “crashed and burnt in typical start up fashion” but has taken it as good learning experience for his current project.
He’s now put his heart into building an indie web browser that can help protect people’s privacy.
“I figured I’ll put everything I can behind working and doing something good,” he said. “I’m stressed most of the time, but it’s a good kind of stress.”