WHEN classmates complained about curbs on using the internet at school, Jack Cator found a way round the rules and filters. “I created a free proxy service to unblock popular sites at the time, such as Myspace and online games,” he said.
Cator’s research on proxies, which allow users to connect to networks without detection, led to some worrying discoveries — and a determination to fight censorship. “I came across government censorship and propaganda in the Middle East making it impossible for people to access sites, even news and resources, from their own home,” he said.
At the age of 16, Cator launched the free proxy server Hide My Ass! Nine years later, it has 10m users around the world, and more than 215,000 subscribers pay to use the company’s virtual private network (VPN) service. They are able to surf the web safely in public places or evade online censorship thanks to its 732 servers in 128 countries that encrypt their identity, location and activity.
Privax, the parent company, reported sales of £11.5m in the year to March and profits of £2.3m. The figures earned Hide My Ass! a place on The Sunday Times Tech Track 100 league of Britain’s fastest-growing private technology, media and telecoms firms.
“Censorship is always going to be around but more people are becoming aware of the need for online privacy,” said Cator, who is the chief executive. “It’s a hot topic, and the whole industry has grown fast.”
In 2008 he added the service to the basic free proxy. It costs from $6.55 (£4.13) a month, and protects the user’s whole internet connection, rather than simply their activity on individual sites. “Anything on your computer that uses an internet connection, be it Skype, your browser or online games, is shielded behind our system,” he said.
The site’s vast global network means that an internet user in Britain can appear to be browsing in America, and therefore can gain access to sites restricted to that country. Critics have expressed concern that it will be used to search for pornography or to conduct criminal activity.
Cator is aware of the controversy. “As with any internet service provider, it can be abused,” he said. “We do not monitor users’ internet activity, though we strongly discourage its use for illegal activity.”
The business recently launched an app, Hide My Phone!, which allows users to rent mobile phone numbers temporarily. It is useful for travellers who want their calls to appear as if they were made locally, he said, but the main benefit is, again, security. “The grand vision is all things privacy for your phone, so private photos, videos, browsing and texting without the possibility of a leak,” said Cator, who owns 100% of the business.
There is still some way to go, of course, as the hacking of celebrities’ personal photos has highlighted. “The internet is not private,” he said. “People aren’t aware that a photo posted from a phone to the internet or cloud storage is accessible to anyone who has an internet connection.
“We also need to educate and raise awareness of how government operations are monitoring your every move online.”
Cator grew up in Norfolk, where he attended Thetford Grammar School. His father runs a mechanical engineering company, where his mother also works. He has two older sisters.
As a boy he enjoyed reading computer manuals and studying web design online. By the age of 13 he was writing tutorials of his own. “I started making web templates for other people and eventually my designs featured on CD-Rom covers and computer magazines,” he said. In 2005 he enrolled on a two-year technology course at City College Norwich. By then Hide My Ass! had been featured on the review site Digg.com. “Within weeks, thousands of websites were signing up,” said Cator. “It was a very simple site, just a logo and a text box, which I think was part of the appeal.”
Income from advertising allowed him to invest £15,000 into setting up the service with the help of freelancers in eight countries. “I was running it remotely from my parents’ sofa in Norfolk. It wasn’t perfect, but by then my aim was to get everything out there as quickly as possible.”
His age proved not to be a disadvantage. “I ran the business successfully for a number of years without being patronised at meetings,” said Cator. “I didn’t have a mortgage and bills, so it wasn’t much of a risk financially.”
In 2011 he swapped the family home for an office in Soho, central London. Hide My Ass! now has 90 staff at the headquarters and in Belgrade and Kiev. “My main difficulty has been finding the right people,” he said. “Remote freelancers are fine but when you are growing a business long term it’s risky to hire people you don’t know who are thousands of miles away.”
Cator, 25, lives in Camden, north London. His advice to entrepreneurs is: “Don’t waste time designing presentations for investors — go out and make something yourself for the experience, and absorb the whole process. Find your natural skill.”