Are Encrypted Email Services the Future of Digital Privacy?

On a mission to protect individuals' civil liberties, a new email service uses end-to-end encryption to scramble emails on the sender’s computer so that they can be decoded only by the recipient.

by Marie Szaniszlo, Boston Herald / June 16, 2015
(TNS) -- In the wake of high-profile hacker attacks and whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s snooping, a Swiss company and 2014 MassChallenge finalist with staff from MIT is offering some Internet privacy.

ProtonMail uses end-to-end encryption to scramble emails on the sender’s computer so that they can be decoded only by the recipient.

“Even we don’t have the ability to read users’ emails,” said Andy Yen, a Harvard alumnus who co-founded the company in 2013. “This is different from Gmail, which scans emails to give you advertising for things they think you might be interested in.”

ProtonMail’s servers are also in Switzerland, which has some of the world’s most stringent digital privacy laws.

Since last summer, when it raised $500,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, Yen said, ProtonMail has amassed 500,000 users — mostly backers, government officials, activists, journalists and founders of some well-known tech companies he declined to name for privacy reasons. The company plans to run off of premium accounts for $5 a month and up, but on Sunday it opened the free version of its service to the general public, allowing anyone to sign up through tomorrow, after which they’ll have to join a waiting list.

Joseph Bonneau of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit defending digital civil liberties, said, “It’s always good to see people working in this space, but it’s not a complete security solution. You have to trust the server is behaving correctly.”

How foolproof ProtonMail is depends on which third party might be trying to read an encrypted email and what their capabilities are, said Robert Rodriguez, chairman of the Security Innovation Network.

“You’d have to be a really good hacker,” Rodriguez said, “or possibly a government, such as the Russians or the Chinese.”

©2015 the Boston Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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