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Scientists from CERN and MIT launch encrypted email service

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May 29, 2014

ProtonMail is a new secure email service created by scientists from CERN and MIT

ProtonMail is a new secure email service created by scientists from CERN and MIT

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The privacy of the data that we put online has been a hot topic over the last year. In order to protect against unwanted snooping, a group of scientists has created a new secure email service. ProtonMail provides end-to-end encryption, meaning that even the company itself can't even see the content of your messages.

The service started being developed in 2013 by a group of CERN scientists who wanted a more secure and private internet, in part as a response to the Edward Snowden leaks. "We began thinking about this problem long before the Snowden leaks, but the leaks were what drove us to take action, as they truly demonstrated how much online privacy had eroded," company co-founder Andy Yen told Gizmag.

The company is advised by the MIT Venture Mentoring Service and is developed, in part at MIT. Earlier this year, ProtonMail was a semi-finalist in the 2014 MIT 100K Startup Launch competition. The initial team, however, was formed via a CERN Facebook group made-up of scientists from CERN that, in some way, wanted to help improve society.

The ProtonMail 'compose' screen

The group held "hackathons" to work on the idea, and much time was spent identifying the problems with existing means encrypting email and trying to find solutions. "What we quickly found out was that existing solutions were much too complicated to be used by the general public and this led us on the path towards creating an easy-to-use solution," explained Yen.

One of the other difficulties the group encountered was getting web browsers to manage the encryption process. The team found that its approach to the encryption of data required a lot of processing power and that web browsers tended not to be "high performance" enough to carry it out. As such, a great deal of work was undertaken to ensure that the encryption process could be made to work on all types of devices, and on older browsers.

ProtonMail uses end-to-end encryption. "End-to-end encryption basically means the user's data is encrypted before it leaves their computer and can only be decrypted by the recipient," says Yen. "With this system, the ProtonMail servers never have access to unencrypted user data and cannot actually read any of our users' emails."

The ProtonMail 'account settings' screen

ProtonMail touts a number of other features that are used to improve its security. The company is incorporated in Switzerland and has all of its servers based there too, allowing its users to benefit from that country's strict privacy laws. IP addresses are not logged and no personal information is required in order to sign up for an account. For paid accounts, users can pay with Bitcoin, and even cash.

The term "NSA proof" has been used widely elsewhere to describe ProtonMail, but it's a term that Yen is not keen on. "We don't like the term because our goal is not to guard against only the NSA," he points out. "There are many other organizations we also want to protect against. People often ask us if ProtonMail is 100 percent secure, and our answer is that it is impossible to have 100 percent security. What ProtonMail does is makes mass surveillance by organizations, such as the NSA, so difficult that it is no longer practical."

Source: ProtonMail

About the Author
Stu Robarts Stu is a tech writer based in Liverpool, UK. He has previously worked on global digital estate management at Amaze and headed up digital strategy for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). He likes cups of tea, bacon sandwiches and RSS feeds.   All articles by Stu Robarts
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12 Comments

......and MIT is based in which country and hasn't MIT been infiltrated in the past by the CIA and NSA?

The Master
29th May, 2014 @ 08:17 am PDT

weren't CERN scientists suppose to research on higgs boson etc. Damn my tax money

Kong Ben
29th May, 2014 @ 03:56 pm PDT

DO NOT TRUST THIS. The N.S.A. (etc) does not care where you base your servers - there are laws in the USA, like CALEA, which allow them the throw these guys in Jail unless there's a backdoor. This is an American product, funded by an American company, founded by an American institution.

Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA)

" CALEA's purpose is to enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to conduct electronic surveillance by requiring that telecommunications carriers and manufacturers of telecommunications equipment modify and design their equipment, facilities, and services to ensure that they have built-in surveillance capabilities, allowing federal agencies to monitor all telephone, broadband internet, and VoIP traffic in real-time. "

christopher
29th May, 2014 @ 06:27 pm PDT

@christopher That is not entirely true.

It is likely that this uses a public/private key system (asymmetric encryption) like PGP/GPG

The basic idea behind it is every has a secret private key they don't share and a public key that is shared. If I want to send you an email I encrypt the email with your public encryption key before I send it and your private key is required to decrypt it.

This means that even if the government does jump through the political loopholes to subpoena your data from servers in Switzerland it must then also either brute force your private key through strong encryption or force you in court to turn over your private key to law enforcement.

That means if you are going to murder people and brag about it over email to your friends and the government has probable cause to suspect you it's likely worth the large effort required on their part to jump through these hoops but it does prevent government from casually sifting through your personal data just because they can or they feel like it without reasonable suspicion of an actual crime.

Even weak encryption is much better than no encryption because its about taking back your privacy and 4th amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. Even when its not the government sifting through your personal communications mail providers (like Google) are scanning your emails for keywords to be used for targeted advertising.

This allows them to make more money on the ads than ones that are simply anonymized and part of why they can afford to offer so much more storage space than other services but its still a bit creepy.

Daishi
30th May, 2014 @ 01:07 am PDT

@Daishi. I've worked in security for 30 years. While your comments are commendable you're also dreaming if you believe anything of what you said applies to the NSA

Rocky Stefano
30th May, 2014 @ 06:40 am PDT

I do not think being hosted off-shore is much safer. Look at Snowden leaks. I am keeping my mail hosted with thexyz.com which is Canadian/US based.

Milou Vakilian
30th May, 2014 @ 07:37 am PDT

I'm going to put this WHOLE THING into a very simple perspective everybody can understand without getting too technical.

The NSA or any agency, anyone for that matter will always be able to read these so called super duper ultra encrypted communication NO MATTER what the method of encoding is.

What to know how - exactly ?

The higher the level of encryption used the higher the communication is flagged as being potentially important and therefore tracked by sender to reciever(s). They wait until it's decrypted at the receiving end end then read it at that point. Absolutely NO NEED at all for any of this malarky about intercepting the data mid-steam and then brute force attacking and breaking the encryption which IS impossible considering true quantum encryption.

For this reason it doesn't matter if you use Quantum encryption because at some point someone/somewhere with the password / key will access it and then the data is compromised.

Jason Pase
30th May, 2014 @ 09:04 am PDT

@Rocky Stefano What specifically do you disagree with in my post? That the NSA would have to request access to a person's data hosted in Switzerland or that they would need to bother breaking the asymmetric encryption to read it?

I'm not saying they couldn't get the data if it became worth their time and effort to do so I am saying doing it restores some privacy that is otherwise non-existent.

@Jason Pase It does matter and any encryption no matter how weak is still more difficult to get through than clear text. Breaking it also depends on the strength of the cipher and the entropy of the private key (password) used and essentially the amount of their computing resources they think your data is worth to them.

Moore's law says that computing power doubles every 18 to 24 months but the difficulty of cracking a password increases exponentially with password length. Look at https://www.grc.com/haystack.htm to see what I mean. Assuming a massive cracking array (https://www.grc.com/haystack.htm)

"Gizmag" takes under a second to crack

"Gizmag.com" 2 days,

"www.gizmag.com" is 20.03 centuries

"www.Gizmag.com" (upper case G) 3.31 thousand centuries

Yes I understand wordlists etc. and that website probably overestimates the realistic time involved but that was a hypothetical example showing that yes you can combat moores law with additional password entropy and even the NSA doesn't own the computing power required to brute force everything.

The point is the NSA isn't going to tie up their collective computing infrastructure for for a month to brute force your password without a good reason and "just because it's encrypted" is not a valid enough reason. Additionally the more people that use encryption the harder it is for the NSA break everyones keys and its not difficult to create passwords you can remember with very high entropy: http://xkcd.com/936/

Daishi
30th May, 2014 @ 06:43 pm PDT

Aah yes Switzerland the country notorious for secret bank accounts for hiding your dirty money now provides some improved means of administering it.

nutcase
30th May, 2014 @ 09:34 pm PDT

This is not news or of note, Privacy Data Systems http://www.privacydatasystems.com/

does all this and more, is secure and reasonably priced.

DCNewc
31st May, 2014 @ 04:12 pm PDT

Beat the NSA and other snoops by sending lots of large emails full of gibberish.

Slowburn
1st June, 2014 @ 09:44 am PDT

@DCNewc There is actually an open standard to do this already via PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) defined in rfc4880.

The commercial product at pgp.com is now owned by symantec but a free alternative exists in the form of https://www.gnupg.org (aka GPG) you can run with Thunderbird email client.

The problem is much of the software out there is written for older times when people still used thick email clients. gmail-Crypt is a chrome extention meant for using PGP with Gmail. The extention homepage is: http://prometheusx.net/introducing-gmail-crypt/

Because PHP/OpenPGP is part of an open standard its compatible with what ever PGP client the other person you are communicating with decides to use. Many people sign their emails with their public PGP key in the sig so its easy to use that key to send the person encrypted email.

From looking through the protonmail web page it looks like they too will use OpenPGP standard so someone using the gmail-Crypt extension would be able to communicate to someone on proton mail etc.

Proprietary platforms are only as useful as the amount of people using them so OpenPGP is the better solution for most people. If protonmail increases the adoption of PGP it could be significant.

Daishi
2nd June, 2014 @ 09:37 am PDT
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