Concern over personal privacy in the era of NSA spying revelations has reached something of a Code Orange. Earlier this summer, the Pew Research Center reported that for the first time since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, more Americans fear an assault on their civil liberties than terrorism. But where we might have been stocking up on duct tape and canned soup a decade ago, today we’re changing our online habits: The percentage of Americans who are disabling cookies and adjusting browser privacy settings jumped 12% and 7% in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks.
It’s in this climate of guardedness that a group of India-based developers has designed a new kind of browser for the privacy-conscious. Using Chromium, an open source browser project that provides the underpinnings for Google’s Chrome, the Epic browser features protections meant to keep out snooping governments, as well as private companies looking to make a buck off your data. And, unlike some of the more complex privacy tools that already exist, part of Epic’s express mission (so its developers say) is to make privacy accessible for plebeians.
"You know, when we started working on this, we had no idea privacy would blow up as it has, or that the NSA has engaged to the extent that it has been going on," developer Alok Bhardwaj explains. "We were looking for people to be interested in privacy where they weren’t, and now it’s kind of gone to the other end."
If the idea of a credible privacy browser designed for the masses triggers some cynicism, it might be a comfort that developer Bhardwaj and his team at Hidden Reflex count media critic and cyberpunk philosopher Douglas Rushkoff (who famously quit Facebook earlier this year) among their advisors. The Washington Post Company and Slashdot founder Rob Malda serve investors. The browser itself also contains a transparent, graphically-pleasing explainer for all of its privacy features, including basic background on how advertisers and third party trackers access your search terms.
"The beauty of it isn’t just that they’ve created a browser that at least is pointing toward the possibility of private, untracked engagement with the net, but it’s also this weirdly educational experience," Douglas Rushkoff says. Bhardwaj contacted him about a year ago, and, interest piqued, Rushkoff asked to stay in the loop. Whether Epic succeeds, Rushkoff acknowledged, is still an open question—but at the very least the browser provides a way to engage with technology that doesn’t necessarily turn the user into a product.
"I want to have a web experience that isn’t being reconfigured in real time to manipulate me on big data assumptions," Rushkoff explains. "The more my history, and the history of other people, is used to determine my web experience, then the less novel and creative my web experience becomes. They’re pushing me down the most predictable pathway."
In terms of disabling advertisers’ tracking ability, and protecting your privacy in general, the browser falls somewhere between the Tor network, an anonymized routing network favored by highly-technical, crypto-savvy types, and Chrome Incognito, which anyone can use.
Where Tor sacrifices page-loading speeds and flash scripts for heightened security, Epic sheds the multiple layers of encryption and chooses to keep the flash scripts available. And while Chrome Incognito (like many privacy add-ons) blocks trackers but still sends your browsing history and search terms back to Google’s servers, Epic only stores your browsing history locally and uses a proxy (if you so choose) for your IP address. The reason, as Bhardwaj explains, is so that Hidden Reflex never even knows your search terms (i.e. "privacy by design").
"We want to provide private search for our users, so via the proxy, our search engine literally can’t even know who you are, or what you’re searching about. All of our search results are submit with a masked IP address," Bhardwaj said.
I spent a few days clicking around with Epic, and have to admit that the experience is pretty similar to Chrome. You can customize the degree of privacy you want with a little umbrella icon in the upper right side that offers options for blocking trackers. Meanwhile, Epic keeps track of all the trackers it punts with a box in the lower right side of the screen—most sites I visited had at least six, while many of the media hubs I visited had as many as 28.
There are some cons. If I used Google in the Epic browser, I was asked to enter a CAPTCHA. And when I logged into Facebook, I had to pass through a couple of steps addressing some of Epic’s plug-in blocking settings to access the site. Still, once I got in and found that Epic had blocked seven trackers from accessing information from my social network, I was grateful for the extra precaution.
Determining how much tracking to block is also tricky—and too much, as Bhardwaj can attest to, can "break the Internet." Most ecommerce sites (like Amazon) require first party cookies to function, so Hidden Reflex didn't block those. Otherwise, removing yourself from the information gathered about Internet users means that you likely won't be served targeted ads, and theoretically means you could be served content that's less specific to your interests. Epic also blocks the script that completes the "auto-translate" function in other browsers, so if you're a unilingual English speaker reading Berlin art blogs, you're sort of screwed.
Bhardwaj says that Hidden Reflex is working to replace those functions served by tracking scripts. But it's up to you to determine whether you'd prefer that the machinery in place optimizes the Internet for you, or if you'd like to keep your data and curiosity to yourself. Maybe you feel more comfortable somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. But if you're uncomfortable with the fact that on the other side of most major browsers you’ll find a trove of third-party trackers looking to harvest your data, which in turn provides those browsers with massive profit, Epic might be something to explore.
It's important to note that Hidden Reflex is a for-profit company, and at the moment, its business model comes from sponsored links on its own search engine—advertising that Bhardwaj asserts will never, no matter what, be targeted to a user’s personal browsing history. Epic bucks the trend in that respect, but whether it can maintain that position going forward will be a telling economic reality test.
Bhardwaj says that Hidden Reflex is still looking for more ways to protect Epic users from NSA snooping. Once his team has worked out all the kinks, he plans on publishing Epic’s open-source code. In the meantime, Hidden Reflex is working on expanding its "white list" of websites for which the developers have scraped all third party cookies clean.
"I think that there’s a lot of potential for abuse of your information, and it’s not something that you really have control over," Bhardwaj says. "There’s billions of dollars being invested in big data, and the problem is that data is your data, and you’re not sure how it’s going to be used."
You can download the browser here for free.