ProtonMail is a new encrypted email service which promises to be NSA -proof -

ProtonMail is a new encrypted email service which promises to be NSA -proof

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

May 20, 2014

In light of Edward Snowden’s revelations of a year ago, how sensitive are you about the emails you send? If the answer is you’re very worried about email security and the abuse of surveillance power of government, pay attention to what follows.

Andy Yen, A Harvard PhD candidate, for one, was appalled to learn of the US government’s surveillance efforts. At the time he was working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland together with other students from MIT or Harvard who were equally adamant that the NSA was overstepping its bounds. They all became focused on building an email service even stronger than Snowden’s Lavabit. What they came up with is a service called ProtonMail which is brought to life out of private beta.

ProtonMail interface

Based in Switzerland away from obtrusive surveillance regimes, ProtonMail boasts end-to-end encrypted email capability without requiring users to install any software. And it promises NSA-proof correspondence. While encryption is not a new technology, only a fraction of the population apparently knows how to employ it. But although the service may seem too technical, supposedly if you can use Gmail, you’ll be able to use ProtonMail. The encryption and decryption are invisible to the end-user. This makes it no different than the systems people currently log into daily.

Proton Mail interface_2

As stated at the outset, ProtonMail’s creators had human rights as a main motivator. While maybe a glitzy feature for someone say, in the US, it has greater significance and utility for others. Yen cited the instance of a writer blogging about the service from China. ’Say you’re an activist in China fighting for democracy, this is a life or death service.” As such it will be free unless you are a ’power user”. In that case the price will still be very affordable at $5 a month.

ProtonMail interface_5

ProtonMail has gained widespread notoriety in a short time. PM was selected as the semi-finalist in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and is still being mentored by the MIT Venture Mentoring Service as well as being advised by computer experts at CERN. But they’re not without their detractors. Some question ProtonMail’s claim to strict privacy saying they will know passwords and will have access to your information. To them Yen retorts, ’ even we don’t have the ability to read that email. If we can’t read it, we obviously can’t turn it over to any government agencies.” Still, some reviewers of the service are not convinced. One such individual wonders how a small company like ProtonMail will be able to stand up to the pressure that giants such as the NSA, GCHQ and their ilk can bring to bear.

In reading reviewers comments about PM I noted how many times the word ’trust’ appeared. The user must trust that ProtonMail can deliver what it promises and does so in a way that ensures privacy. Only time and user ship will tell the story. Since May 1, when the team launched its invitation-only beta, PM has attracted nearly 1000 users. With the public launch imminent they expect greater penetration and they welcome comments about how they may improve the service.

Aficionados of VPN are not strangers to encryption and have used VPNs with great results. VPN users are ardent advocates of privacy. Maybe they will be in the vanguard of ProtonMail’s users. As time goes by we eagerly anticipate their feedback of the viability and practicality of ProtonMail.