Proton Mail: What's Your Privacy Worth?

ProtonMail NSA-Proof, End-to-End Encrypted Email Service

There are many things I have grown intolerant to over the years: Folgers coffee, the line at Starbucks, aggressive homeless people, and without a doubt the worst of all -- unwarranted surveillance on a global scale.

According to one unnamed NSA agent

"“Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.” [^n]

That is a scary thought. Well for most liberty loving people. Of course you get those who argue (and this is my favorite rebuttle for introducing the topic of government surveilence): "Well if you have nothing to hide then why do you care?"

Let me tell you why I care, and why you should too. Every piece of digital information, this blog, my information, your information, is all being collected and stored then auto-analyzed to build up a profile on everyone because anyone can be a threat. This notion that our domestic and international surveillance program is key to the security of The United States is simply inconsequential. It is unconstitutional to monitor the digital communications of all of our citizens, and to monitor the communications of the citizens of countries around the world.

I am an avid supporter of privacy online, and have used software such as Tor, GPG, BitMessage and other means to keep my communication online as secure as possible.

Seeing as how major telecommunication companies are cooperating with agencies such as the NSA[^n], I have given up on trying to make my telephone calls anonymous. However, when the time comes when that is a more accessible solution to implement, I will be protecting myself on that front as well.

What I don't believe people understand is the magnitude of running such an intensive data collecting operation. Data centers, or data farms must be continuously built to store all of this data, and software must be written to analyze this data and allow a motivated individual to retrieve this data with queries of their choosing.

We are being silently profiled. Every e-mail we send, phone call we make, Google search we seek is all being used to build this profile on what the NSA regards as 'meta-data'. This isn't an extensive audit of your day to day activities, but let's look at the scary implications of what 'meta-data' might portray an individual as.

Let's say:

  • I have a bank account with a debit card.

  • I use this debit card for the majority of my purchases.

  • I ride the bus everyday, and because I ride the bus everyday, I have my EasyPay Metro Card

I now have some meta-data that is useful. If someone with the means (The NSA) took a look at my Metro Card activity and my purchases throughout the day, and then decided to analyze my phone calls, they could effectively know precisely where I am, what I am buying, and who I am talking to. All from a single 'service to service' link.

One of the notorious NSA programs for mass surveillance is known as PRISM. Here The NSA partners with your trusted service providers to tap into their data stream and intercept communications. This alone yields TONS of data.

Does this bother you? Or are you falling into this propaganda that programs like these, costly programs paid by you, are fueling the American intelligence community? Does it bother you that you have no liberty, no privacy? Furthermore, does it bother you that demanding privacy has become almost a taboo? As if not wanting strangers, especially strangers who deceive you into trusting them, to know every detail about every aspect of your life? It bothers me.

I don't care if I was buying dog food for my therapy dog who entertains sick children at The Children's Hospital, I don't want that sort of scrutiny put on my life. I want to be able to speak freely to peacefully protest, you know those things our Constitution protects. If I wanted every aspect of my life monitored, I would move to North Korea (although I am certain they aren't sophisticated enough to implement a system 0.001 times as effective as what the US has been able to implement.

This is where we reach that pivotal point in digital history where we either lay back and revoke our personal liberty and right to privacy, or we fight back. Some of the most brilliant minds in computer science today are fighting back, and they are making privacy more accessible to the average person than ever before.

Here Comes ProtonMail

ProtonMail is an encrypted email service that provides 'end-to-end' encryption for your emails, ensuring that no one, not even them, can read your private conversations.

All emails are secured automatically with end-to-end encryption. This means even we cannot decrypt and read your emails. As a result, your encrypted emails cannot be shared with third parties.[^n]

ProtonMail is based in Switzerland, a country known for its discretion and allegiance to privacy. It is a free service, but in the wake of Edward Snowden, the demand has reached a point that registration gets you on an invite list. When the infrastructure is in place, you will get your invite. Seeing as how ProtonMail is free and open-source, donations will get you a beta-invite to use their iOS or Android application and/or an increase in the amount of storage your inbox can hold. The free, standard package right now is only 500MB.

I reached out to ProtonMail and was able to get a few questions into their co-founder Any Yen. I asked him some questions that may help explain to non-technical users how the platform works and why it is important.

This Is My (very) Brief Interview With Mr. Yen

What was the main inspiration for the creation of Proton Mail? What did you see lacking in the market to actively pursue development of this service?

We knew that a lot of people (ourselves included), wanted to use secure email, but all of the existing alternatives were simply too difficult to use. Thus, we decided to create our own service that would be focused around user experience.

What technologies do you employ for the generation of key pairs?

We do the key generation on users browsers or mobile devices. The key pairs are standard PGP key pairs which we generate using open source cryptographic libraries.

How are private keys stored, how secure is the private key, and what was the the main reason for creating a login system before decrypting the mailbox?

For this question I was referred to this link which you are free to read in its entirety, but this is the answer given by one of the developers of ProtonMail.

I am Jason, one of the ProtonMail developers.

Decryption uses a combination of asymmetric (RSA) and symmetric (AES) encryption.

For PM [ProtonMail] to PM [ProtonMail] emails, we use an implementation of PGP where we handle the key exchange. So we have all the public keys. As for the private keys, when you create an account, it is generated on your browser, then encrypted with your mailbox password (which we do not have access to). Then the encrypted private key is pushed to the server so we can push it back to you whenever you login. So do we store your private key, yes, but since it is the encrypted private key, we don't actually have access to your key.

For PM to Outside emails, encryption is optional. If you select to encrypt, we use symmetric encryption with a password that you set for that message. This password can be ANYTHING. It should NOT be your Mailbox password. You need to somehow communicate this password to the recipient.

We have a couple other tricks as well for getting around the horrible performance of RSA.

We will eventually write a whitepaper with full details that anybody can understand. But something like that is a week long project in itself. I apologize in advance if my answer only makes sense to crypto people.

Now that was a little more technical, but it needed to be brought up for the sake of understanding this service.

What is your history and experience before Proton Mail? Have you studied cryptography?

Previously, I was a physicist working at CERN. A lot of our team similarly has strong mathematics and programming backgrounds which we applied to crytography.

(Clearly some smart people working at ProtonMail)

Knowing that the NSA does not need a court order to monitor foreign network communications, are you concerned that they may put forth effort to monitor your system and ultimately brute force passwords to private email accounts? What methods of security do you implement to decrease the risk of a data breach?

End-to-end encryption is the best protection actually. If even we can't read the messages of our users, then a breach of our systems would not result in a breach of user communications.

For the common, non-technical user, what would you say is the importance of private emails and privacy online. What would you say to those who argue "if I have nothing to hide I don't care if the government reads my emails"?

Would you like to give me the keys to your house and also the password to your email account?

Who have you discovered to be the biggest offender of civil privacy among world governments today?

I think the US tops that list due to the sheer size of the surveillance infrastructure that has been put in place.

I haven't decided yet if people simply are too complacent to care about their privacy and personal liberty, or chalk this up to paranoia and speculation. THERE IS NO SPECULATION! This is happening today, to you and to the people you know. It is happening to anyone who uses the internet essentially. All this effort into protecting our privacy boils down to the question: Who is the government serving? Spying on all Americans does not seem to be in tune with serving all Americans, which by nature is the job of any modern government.

We must escape this intrinsic secrecy and stop hiding behind the seemingly impenetrable wall of "This is a matter of national security". It is not. Jane Doe sending naked pictures to John Smith is no one's business except for Jane Doe and John Smith. Period. Is the precedent being set to violate this fundamental right to live our lives free of intrusion? As it stands now, yes.

Hopefully with services like ProtonMail, average users can privately communicate without the ear of The NSA listening in. For that I am hopeful. The more accessible encryption methods become to average people, the better odds we have at taking back the Internet and returning it to a place of open thought, open discussion and freedom to connect with anyone at anytime regardless of location, race, beliefs or religion. We have to fight to restore the beauty of the Internet, but when your enemy is so large and over-funded, little victories like ProtonMail move us closer in that direction.