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Feature Interview: Dr. Andy Yen on ProtonMail and Online Privacy

Reading Time: 3 minutes by on March 28, 2016 Business, Interviews, News, Tech
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Ever since the Internet became a mainstream tool, there has been an intense debate over online privacy. We have seen, from the Assange case, to the Snowden and Manning cases, that online privacy is a matter of great importance that concerns us all.

Nevertheless, this growing concern and recent attention toward online privacy has inspired the development of many projects that are trying to build an internet that respects personal privacy. ProtonMail, is one of these successful projects that has found a way to offer a completely secure email service product capable of ensuring absolute privacy. The concept behind ProtonMail’s technology is based on PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption. It is an easy-to-use, secure email service with built-in, end-to-end encryption and state-of-the-art security features.

ProtonMail consists of a team of scientists, engineers, and developers joined by a common goalof protecting online freedom. The project was launched back in 2014 by invite only, and soon started to accept bitcoin donations. On March 17, 2016 the company announced it was opening a new public registration process. At a time when the forces working to undermine online privacy are growing apace, the company felt this decision was more important than ever.

To learn more about the ProtonMail technology and further discuss online privacy, BTCMANAGER had a conversation with the company’s CEO and co-founder, Dr. Andy Yen.  

On how ProtonMail was born

ProtonMail was actually founded by scientists who met at CERN and MIT in August 2013. After the revelations by Edward Snowden, a lot of us in the scientific community at CERN felt compelled to take action because no good solution existed for email encryption. Privacy is under attack and it is essential to create services that give people a private alternative.Just as important, however, is to create private alternatives that people actually love to use because widespread adoption is the key to making privacy technologies successful. The best way to do this is to lower the barrier to entry; so our goal is to build encrypted email that is easy enough for everybody to use.

On ProtonMail’s relationship with Bitcoin

We have a long history with Bitcoin. During our initial crowdfunding campaign, PayPal froze our funds, claiming that we needed government permission to offer encryption. At this time, we relied on Bitcoin to operate until we could get the funds out of PayPal.

On privacy and security 

Strong encryption and privacy are a social and economic necessity. Not only does this technology protect activists and dissidents, it is also key to securing the world’s digital infrastructure. This is why, all things considered, strong encryption is absolutely necessary for the greater good.

[ProonMail’s] biggest differentiator is employing end-to-end encryption to ensure that even we do not have access to user messages. Essentially, all data encryption and decryption happens on the client side, with data secured using a passphrase which we do not possess. As a result, we cannot share user data with third parties. The core technology is based on PGP (and compatible with PGP), but made easier to use.

On Bitcoin, regulation and the future for the digital currency ecosystem  

Bitcoin is similar to ProtonMail in some ways. It faces immense technical challenges which will first need to be overcome before we even get to discussing regulation. Regulation, I am less worried about because pretty much every single attempt to control the internet or crypto in the past has failed.

On the company’s future and goals

ProtonMail recently added paid accounts…We are basically the first to test on a large scale the hypothesis of whether ordinary citizens are willing to pay for privacy (because privacy applications by definition cannot be free since the advertising model isn’t possible). It will be interesting to see how this plays out. If many people are willing to take the jump, then there could be high growth in our future.

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