Privacy and Proton Mail: Email in the Era of Cambridge Analytica


Recent weeks have seen renewed attention on user privacy and data management. Following the multi-party scandal involving Facebook and  the data digital consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, many online users are anew to how their data is managed, and how they can better protect it in future. For those yet to be across the scandal, a good recap can be found here.

In light of this, a review of ProntonMail is timely. For those yet to hear of it, ProtonMail (PM) was founded in 2014 by Andy Yen, Jason Stockman and Wei Sun. These three CERN scientists developed an email app with client-side encryption that’s now viewed as a leader in user privacy and data management. Let’s look at PM in-depth now.

What Makes PM Unique

Offering end-to-end encryption, PM’s platform ensures your emails are seen only be sender and recipient. Even the PM team themselves can’t see what you send.

This means sharing the information with third parties is out, and so unlike other email clients that readily collect data on its users to sell to advertisers, people who use PM mail will not be subject to the standard data gathering practices see elsewhere. For those who treasure their privacy this is fantastic, and even those who are a little indifferent are sure to find this a real breathe of fresh air.

As well as the ad-free experience, PM mail also refrains from keeping IP logs, or requiring personal information when you sign up for an account. You do have the option of providing another email to use for an emergency access if need be, but it’s also possible to sign up with a ‘blank sheet’ and provide no identifiable info.

This is great for anyone who may need to share sensitive information with the certainty it can’t be traced back to them such as investigative journalists and whistleblowers.  But even beyond these high octane examples, using PM to ensure your email privacy is still worthwhile given the present climate.

Why this Is Important

The speed of growth in digital data collection has rapid. In the past ten years the use of smartphone and social media has permeated just about every pore of our daily lives.

The recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal has driven new debate once again. This in tandem to the new GDPR rules in the European Union. For many years people just used social media sites begrudgingly accepting their data would be mined as it happened – but now there’s a sign the sands are shifting.

Whether this will ultimately see in future a decisive change to the law surrounding how online businesses can handle user data is unclear. But it is clear PM’s stock is on the rise among those who have been peeved off by the latest round of data debate, and want to make a real shift back to apps where their privacy is respected.

Local Data Law

Because ProtonMail is headquartered in Switzerland it is subject to different data management policy than many other email providers. And put simply this policy is more rigid. While it’s often held the EU is better on user privacy than the US, in reality this is not necessarily the case.

But as Switzerland is not an EU member, and is a nation of robust privacy protections, PM users can send and receive email without concern of Big Brother-style oversight.

Swiss law can compel an internet service (ISP) provider to allow lawful interception, but PM is not an ISP but an app. And a result not subject to such law.

But Keep in Mind

While PM is a leader, it’s also not totally without issue. A number of users have reported issues with speed. This has been seen in general sending and receiving, and also specific platforms like the Android app.

If you intend to use PM to send the occasional message you want extra peace of mind around, then occasional lag may not be a major issue to you. But if you intent to migrate all your daily emailing to a PM account? It is important to keep this experience in mind, and do so testing before making a full leap.

And also, while PM mail is a really robust platform – it’s of course not ‘idiot proof’.This is not the fault of the PM team, but rather a cautionary word for anyone who often locks themselves out of their account or writes down their passwords on the fridge. The security of PM will only be as good as the precision of the user.

Getting the Message

For those who want more control over their privacy, and ensure their online activity results in less compiled data, ProtonMail can be a good pick.

Beyond this, the team at PM should also be commended for renewing the conversation surrounding online email privacy. While data collection is not be default bad, it should occur with a user’s awareness and permission. In raising awareness, and growing this conversation, PM makes solid inroads in this sphere.

Ed Kennedy is a journalist, ghostwriter, and web developer from Melbourne, Australia. Contact Ed via on LinkedIn or Twitter@EdKennedy01