You may encrypt your internet traffic, but the provider you use to send emails can still read them, and so can cybercriminals and national security. It threatens freedom and democracy around the world. Bart Butler leads a team who developed ProtonMail as a private email service.

Who do you trust with that level of power?

In 2013, former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowdon turned whistleblower. He revealed a secret plan to develop mass global surveillance involving multiple countries and tech companies.

It was this event that triggered Bart Butler and others to crowdfund 500,000 US dollars to build the world’s first easy to use, fully encrypted email service provider. In the latest in Tomorrow Unlocked series Defenders of Digital, Bart talks about why ProtonMail is different and why his work matters.

Leveling up email privacy

Chief Technology Officer at Switzerland-based Proton Technologies, Bart Butler says, “A society in which everyone is being spied on all the time is not a free society. We can’t function if we can’t have private communications with people.”

Email might be the most democratic way of communicating the world has ever seen. Almost everyone who can access the internet also has an email address. And the accounts we use for all other internet services come back to our email address.

But email isn’t as secure as you might think. Bart says, “If you’re using a major email provider, your messages are sent with transfer-level encryption, but most email providers can read your messages. Your emails can be read if they have an interest in reading them, or if they’re compromised. It doesn’t matter who you are – you don’t want someone sifting through your life.”

Proton aims to provide alternatives to online communication tools that level-up our expectations around privacy.

Encryption at every level

In today’s world, corporations and nation states could control all access to communication. “No one can be trusted with that level of power,” says Bart. “At some point, the wrong people will gain control, and then free society is in danger.” 

Proton knew they had to make something as easy to use as regular email, but secure by default, with end-to-end encryption, where only the writer and receiver could read the email. They adapted existing email technology PGP to make it easier to use for everyday people and based their business and services in Switzerland to benefit from the country’s neutrality principles and world-leading privacy law.

The story continues…

Tomorrow Unlocked series Defenders of Digital highlights the people working every day for our digital safety and security. Watch other Defenders of Digital episodes.

Are there times when it’s OK for governments and corporations to read private emails?