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Harry Halpin works on internet privacy for many reasons, but perhaps the most pressing stems from an incident that occurred over a decade ago. Halpin, who was pursuing a doctorate in computer science at the University of Edinburgh at the time, was also a climate activist. In December 2009, while in Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, he was arrested by law enforcement authorities and, he says, beaten severely. It turned out the British police had been monitoring his protest activities, and they told their Danish counterparts that Halpin was one of the ringleaders they should apprehend. (He says his actions were always peaceful.) Privacy and secrecy have been on his mind ever since.

After earning his doctorate, Halpin spent nearly a decade in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, he worked for Tim Berners-Lee, widely heralded as the inventor of the World Wide Web. As useful as the web has been, Halpin is quick to point out its shortcomings.

“The web was not built with security and privacy in mind, although people subsequently tried to address those concerns as sort of an afterthought,” Halpin said. He has done his best to fix these issues, working to introduce layers of protection where none existed before. For example, in his job for the World Wide Web Consortium, Halpin helped create uniform cryptography standards, making sure these standards were incorporated into every web browser in a form that web developers could readily use.

But Halpin soon recognized that simply stopping leaks of information at the highest level of the internet — the level of browsers, apps and other advanced functionality — was not enough. He also wanted to protect the lower, foundational level: the network through which the information is transmitted. In 2018, he started Nym Technologies to take on this problem. The idea was to create a new kind of “overlay network” that would make use of the existing internet but alter crucial components — by rerouting traffic, among other means — to make some of the communications truly anonymous.

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