Everyone knows by now that email is not a secure transmission medium and that everyone from the NSA to Google's ad researchers are constantly scanning emails for purposes both noble and profane.
But like most things that everyone knows, it's no longer true. There are several email providers that promise secure, private, confidential service. Perhaps the most popular and user-friendly is ProtonMail, which uses end-to-end encryption to protect emails from snooping.
Oh, and did we mention that the company is based in Switzerland and has no servers on United States soil? That provides another layer of protection, since even a federal court order would not force ProtonMail to give up information about its users, as U.S. technology companies do routinely.
“One of the key things we want to do is control our servers and make sure all the servers are in Switzerland which will increase privacy because Switzerland doesn’t do things like seize servers or tape conversations,” said co-founder Andy Yen.
Launched in May 2014, ProtonMail has had some growing pains. Early demand overloaded its servers but crowdfunding brought in $550,000 and the company recently raised another $2 million. It currently has about 350,000 users, including journalists, businesspeople, and activists who value privacy in their communications.
Yen told ConsumerAffairs that the encryption method his company uses ensures that no one -- not the government, a hacker, or even ProtonMail itself -- can gain access to a user's email.
That's because it uses a "key" system that encrypts each piece of email in the user's browser before it is sent. Only the user has the key, without which the email can't be unlocked. Even if a hacker broke into the ProtonMail system, he would not be able to read any of the emails on the company's servers without having each user's key, which is not stored anywhere on the system.
While most of us probably aren't exchanging information with confidential sources or moles deep within government agencies, many consumers worry with good reason about their emails being read by hackers, while others simply resent seeing advertisements based on subjects discussed in their emails. For such people, ProtonMail is the answer.
I've been using ProtonMail for the last week or so without incident. I had no trouble getting it up and running and found the layout to be attractive and intuitive. There are plans ranging from free to a few hundred dollars per year for corporate accounts that accommodate multiple domains and mailboxes.
Keep in mind that ProtonMail is still in its early stages. Its email is just that -- email. There are no calendars, word processors or other bells and whistles, although there are filters, labels, and other enhancements we've all come to expect. The corporate plans accommodate multiple domains and mailboxes but each user must log into the master account to send and download mail, something Yen says will be fixed in the next iteration.
However, those are minor drawbacks for anyone who places a high value on privacy.