Startup to deliver encrypted email

Service being developed by group from MIT and CERN


June 02--A new email service being developed by a group from MIT and European research center CERN promises to bring secure, encrypted email to the masses and keep sensitive information away from prying eyes.

"We guarantee only the sender and receiver can read the messages," said Andy Yen, a co-founder of ProtonMail. "We have zero access to user data."

ProtonMail's approach is to appeal to average consumers who may not know much -- if anything -- about encryption or digital security, but still want more online privacy. Many secure and encrypted email systems require long password keys, and do not put emphasis on user experience.

"The whole point of ProtonMail is we want to make encryption and security available to the mainstream," Yen said. ProtonMail has many features in common with popular email clients that many are used to, including contacts and the ability to "star" important messages.

Nicco Mele, a digital privacy expert and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, said tools that offer more privacy are important, but the public hasn't caught on yet.

"Since the NSA and (Edward) Snowden revelations, the broad public's interest in greater security and privacy has risen," Mele said. "There's also a gap between what they believe and what they do."

Mele said ProtonMail, which he had not yet used, could be part of a wave of startups trying to make security accessible.

"There has generally been a trade-off between security and ease of use," Mele said. "That trade-off for the most part has been slowly closing."

Yen and his co-founders developed ProtonMail while at CERN shortly after the Snowden leaks began.

"It seems like the right place and right time to do something like this," Yen said.

The servers are in Switzerland, which means any government trying to get access to the little data ProtonMail says it collects would have to work through Swiss digital privacy laws, some of the toughest in the world.

Yen said the second-most popular country for ProtonMail is Russia, where users are trying to avoid a snooping government.

"Users control their information," Yen said.

Users also control their accounts, Yen said, and do not have to worry about pressure from investors or parent companies. Yen vowed to keep ProtonMail independent, so the company is not accepting investors, and Yen said they have already turned away some who were interested in acquiring the company.

Instead, ProtonMail will run off of premium accounts, which add extra features like additional storage to the standard, free accounts.

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