Startup Aleo Wants to Help You Use the Internet Without Sacrificing Data Privacy

Aleo co-founder Howard Wu says a better data privacy model for both companies and consumers can be built using zero-knowledge proofs.

AccessTimeIconSep 24, 2020 at 7:50 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. UTC

Privacy tech company Aleo has launched a data privacy-oriented blockchain and developer kit to make writing zero-knowledge proofs in web applications easy and scalable.

The startup is releasing its first round of software tools to let developers write private applications for the web using a new programming language called Leo, as well as integrate these tools into pre-existing browsers’ functions. 

“I think it's become very clear that the internet is broken,” said Aleo co-founder Howard Wu on a phone call. “As users of the internet, we give up our personal data in exchange for services from providers. This model is really outdated. It's an antiquated one. For us, the goal is to provide a new type of model where this incentive can be aligned for both sides.”

Zero-knowledge proofs

Aleo leverages zero-knowledge proofs (ZKPs), a cryptographic technique that allows two parties on the internet, such as an app and a user, to verify information with each other without sharing the underlying data related to this information.

If you think about it in the context of logging into a website for example, it would verify who you are without sharing info such as your password, geolocation data or other information that can be used to suss out additional details about yourself that you aren’t aware you might be giving up.

“The idea is that we can provide user interface (UI) components and frameworks that look just like traditional web applications,” said Wu. “But when you click on something, it does some magic under the hood, and makes executing ZKPs much easier, happening within your browser. We will provide a UI toolkit, a UI framework that lets web developers build it into existing web applications.”

Aleo’s development toolkit

Aleo’s initial release is made up of four different components. 

There is the Aleo Studio, the first integrated development environment (IDE) for writing privacy-focused, zero-knowledge applications. An IDE is a holistic environment for developers to write computer programs. 

The Aleo Package Manager is focused on letting developers manage and store data packages. Integrated with Aleo Studio, the package manager makes it easier for developers to organize and share their work. 

SnarkOS is Aleo’s decentralized operating system for private web applications and the first implementation of the Aleo protocol.

“It runs a blockchain and it supports all sorts of applications,” said Wu. “So it’s very similar to ones that people know and love on Ethereum. The idea for us is to use snarkOS as the foundation or the backbone of this entire system. So snarkOS is meant to checkpoint, verify and store data in state.”

As users interact with the web, they're making transactions such as payments, inputting their data, or interacting with games through applications, all of which involve state transitions, or the ways that data moves throughout the internet. Private app integrations with Aleo can address all of these phases, meaning the data privacy functionality isn’t negated at any one point. 

The last part of Aleo’s developer kit is the “Aleo Testnet I,” a testnet on snarkOS that allows developers to write and deploy applications. 

Developers must build programs on the Aleo blockchain to use the kit, as Aleo is the foundation for everything else developers want to build and integrate with. The focus is on establishing a strong and private core, so that users are able to choose whether they want their data to be public or not. 

The whole goal, however, is for developers to integrate existing apps with Aleo. Existing applications will be able to integrate on Aleo using normal web paradigms. 

“Our goal isn’t to disrupt the web, it’s to integrate with it.” said Wu. “Aleo will host infrastructure and services to make it easy for web applications to use Aleo.”

Leo: Programming privacy with a new language

The company has also created a new programming language called “Leo.” Wu explained that while Leo looks and feels like JavaScript, under the hood, it is uniquely able to abstract low-level cryptographic concepts, so developers can build private applications without a degree in cryptography. 

“We built Leo to make it easy to write private applications,” said Wu. “For crypto-natives, Leo allows developers to build applications like dark pools, anonymous mixers, private marketplaces – you name it.”

He added, for web developers, Leo provides a framework that allows developers to build secure components for applications like password-less login, instant checkouts and more. 

Addressing shifting attitudes around data privacy

According to a recent report from AI-powered fraud detection company Sift, if a company inadvertently exposes a customer's data, whether it’s the companies fault or not, 56% of survey respondents said they’d stop using the site altogether. 

“The idea here is to provide an ecosystem that is robust enough to give you alternative options and I think that’s a model that’s far more far more cohesive for both companies and consumers,” said Wu. 

Right now, according to Wu, Aleo’s goal is to plant a seed and get as much feedback as they can before they launch their mainnet. 

“Many of the common L1 foundations have tried Aleo Studio and Leo in private,” said Wu. “We have been using the opportunity to architect requirements to integrate. After all, many blockchains would like a shielded pool for applications on their chain.”


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