Nearly a year ago, former CIA technical assistant Edward Snowden stepped forward to say he was responsible for one of the most explosive leaks in history. The National Security Agency was exposed, and Andy Yen, a Harvard PhD candidate, was appalled.
“I posted on Facebook, ‘Hey, I don’t really like the fact the government is wiretapping us. What’s happening in America?'”
After Yen posed the question, dozens started chiming in, equally as startled and determined to change the conversation. As Snowden had said last summer:
I can’t, in good conscience, allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.
At the time, Yen was working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, known as CERN, where the elusive “God Particle” was discovered, coincidentally alongside a handful of other Cambridge, Mass.-educated students from either Harvard or MIT. A team of five suddenly formed, all focused on creating a service stronger than Lavabit, Snowden’s email provider.
That service is called ProtonMail, and it is launching out of private beta Friday.
ProtonMail is end-to-end encrypted email that is based offshore in Switzerland, where the team could operate free of surveillance mandates. Although “encryption is not necessarily a new technology,” according to Yen, “only one to two percent of the population knows how to do it.” ProtonMail handles the entire process without forcing users to install any software, and promises NSA-proof correspondence.
“Say you’re an activist in China fighting for democracy, this is a life or death service.”
“Even we don’t have the ability to read that email,” Yen asserted. “If we can’t read it, we obviously can’t turn it over to any government agencies.”
A main motivation behind starting ProtonMail was the human rights component. Referencing a writer in China who blogged about the service, Yen said, “Say you’re an activist in China fighting for democracy, this is a life or death service.”
Because of that, fellow co-founder Jason Stockman added they will be offering a “free for life” version of ProtonMail. The catch is similar to that of Dropbox’s model — the service will be free, unless you’re a “power user,” and then ProtonMail will ring in at roughly $5 a month.
Although the service sounds too technical, Stockman assures, “If you can use Gmail, you can use ProtonMail.” Encryption and decryption are completely invisible to the end-user, meaning the experience is no different from the platforms people currently log in to daily. Users can simply sign in from the startup’s website, and will soon be offered secure chat and file storage, as well.
ProtonMail was recognized as a semi-finalist in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, and the team is currently being advised by the MIT Venture Mentoring Service. With half of the team still in Switzerland, the technology has also been reviewed by computer security experts at CERN.
Since May 1, when the team launched its invitation-only beta, ProtonMail has garnered nearly 1,000 users. With its public beta launch, Yen said they want people to try and find bugs, as well as share any suggestions they have to improve the service.
“We’re definitely not for 100 percent of the population, ” Stockman said, “but for those who don’t like what the government is doing.”
Image via ProtonMail