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 newly anxious about 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 emails you send are seen only by sender and recipient. Even the PM team themselves can’t see what you send.

Sharing information with third parties is out altogether. 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. For those who treasure their privacy this is fantastic. Even those who’re a little indifferent will surely find this a breath of fresh air.

Alongside the ad-free experience, PM mail also refrains from keeping IP logs, or requiring personal information when you sign up for an account. You have the option of providing another email to use for 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 been rapid. In the past decade the use of smartphones and social media has permeated just about every pore of our daily lives.

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal increased debate about this. This in tandem to the new GDPR rules in the European Union. For many years people who used social media sites begrudgingly accepting their data would be mined as a result- now there’s indications the sands are shifting.

Whether this will ultimately result in decisive legal change surrounding how online businesses handle user data is unclear. But it’s clear PM’s stock is on the rise among those who’ve peeved off by the latest round of data debate, and want to use apps that’ll respect their privacy.

Local Data Law

Because ProtonMail is headquartered in Switzerland it’s subject to a different set of data management policies than many other email providers. Put simply, policies that are more rigid. While it’s often believed the EU is better on user privacy than the U.S., in reality this isn’t necessarily the case.

But as Switzerland isn’t 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. As a result, it’s not subject to such law.

But Keep in Mind

PM is a leader, but not totally without issue. Numerous users have reported issues with speed. This has been seen generally when sending and receiving on a computer, and also on specific platforms like the Android app.

If intending to use PM to send an occasional message you want extra peace of mind around, then a bit of lag won’t be a major issue to you. But if you’re intent to migrate all daily emailing to a PM account? It’s important to consider this, and do some testing before completing a full transfer.

Furthermore, although PM mail is a really robust platform it’s of course not ‘idiot proof’. This isn’t 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 a PM account online is only as good as the security steps a user takes to safeguard it offline.

Getting the Message

For those who want more control over their privacy, and to 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.

Though data collection is not bad by default, 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 and ghostwriter from Melbourne, Australia. Contact Ed via on Skype or LinkedIn.

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