Andy Yen, CEO of Proton: “Google users pay with their most private and personal data”

While Proton is changing by offering a new, more global offer that respects user privacy (email, calendar, online storage, VPN, etc.), we were able to speak with Andy Yen, founder and CEO of the company , and ask him a few questions about his vision of privacy on the Internet.

It was in 2014 that scientist Andy Yen, then working at CERN, co-founded ProtonMail with two colleagues, Wei Sun and Jason Stockman. It is one of the first encrypted email services available to the general public. Today, the service changes its name and becomes “just” Proton, while expanding its offer. The opportunity to come back with Andy Yen on the development of the company and the latest milestones in respect of privacy on the Internet.

The Digital – The general public is often surprised and upset by the misuse of personal data, but ultimately few make the necessary effort to protect it. How do you make the general public aware that you have to subscribe to a paid subscription to protect your data, when most Internet users have been using free systems that work very well for years?

Andy Yen / Proton – The most important thing to say is that Google is not free. Instead of paying with money or subscriptions, Google users pay with their most private and personal data. This gives Google the tools to turn its users into products that can be sold to its true customers, the advertisers. More and more people are becoming aware of this phenomenon, and that’s why companies like Proton have seen hundreds of millions of people sign up for privacy-first services over the past year. However, at Proton, we believe that privacy should be accessible to everyone, regardless of where you live or how much money you have. That’s why we continue to offer free versions of all elements of the Proton ecosystem.

How can Proton’s new formulas encourage more people to secure their personal data?

The Proton ecosystem makes privacy more affordable, more accessible, and more user-friendly than ever. By bringing our products together in a single ecosystem, with enhanced integration and functionality, we make it easier for users to protect their privacy and personal data.

Between two Proton clients, the messages are encrypted, but what happens when you send an email to someone who uses Gmail or Yahoo Mail? Is the data readable by these companies?

It’s important to look at things from a broader perspective than just accessing an email inbox. Google’s data collection program is so successful because it gives the company the tools to track you all over the web and build detailed profiles about you. Google’s ecosystem is designed in such a way that all your data is in one place and easily accessible by the company. However, if you use Proton, it means your inbox, files, and calendars are safe and away from Google’s spy device. Even if your contacts don’t use Proton, the fact that you do provides an extra layer of protection against Big Tech’s surveillance programs.

You benefited from several sources of funding during the development of ProtonMail (Indiegogo, FONGIT…). Is Proton’s economic model now secure?

Yes. Thanks to the support of users who choose to subscribe to paid plans, Proton has been fortunate to be profitable for several years. This has allowed us to grow, hire talented staff, invest in research and development, and expand our product line, even though no venture capitalists currently hold a stake in the company. . It also means we haven’t had to rely on annual funding cycles to stay afloat and can instead focus on improving our services.

Many companies use Google services for their emails and work documents (Google Suite). Do you have requests from large corporations, non-governmental organizations or even governments to use services that are more respectful of data, even if it is not personal?

Yes, in addition to offering individual accounts, over 10,000 organizations use Proton For Business solutions.

An email service, a calendar, a VPN, a storage space: the Proton offer is expanding year after year.

In order to compete with large companies like Google, Microsoft or Apple, you must be able to offer a complete ecosystem that respects private data with, in addition to email and the calendar, an office suite, a videoconferences, an instant communication tool… Do you have the ambition to offer other applications in the near future?

For now, we are focused on perfecting the products we already have in our ecosystem, namely Proton Mail, Proton Calendar, Proton Drive and Proton VPN. However, our long-term ambition is to further expand the Proton ecosystem. While no final decision has been made on which products will launch next, everything our Big Tech competitors offer is potentially affected.

Europe wants to set up a data monitoring system to fight against child pornography. How to find the balance between the protection of private data and the fight against terrorism and the sexual abuse of children?

As the world increasingly operates online, it is important that as a society we find a balance between preventing crime and protecting civil liberties, just as we do in other aspects of our life. At Proton, our position is clear. We’re here to protect our users’ privacy, but that doesn’t mean we’re a haven for criminals. Our Terms of Service make it clear that illegal behavior is not tolerated, and our Security and Abuse teams proactively remove users who violate the rules. We believe that encryption is essential to protect people’s fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression. There are many ways to fight crime without compromising encryption.

We’re here to protect our users’ privacy, but that doesn’t mean we’re a haven for criminals.

Much criticism was leveled in the press when it was revealed that the company had recorded and transmitted the IP addresses of certain users to the French authorities in September 2021. The content of the emails remained inaccessible, but this case did you she harmed?

It is important to understand that protecting privacy does not imply immunity from criminal prosecution, and like any business in Switzerland, Proton must comply with Swiss laws. It is also important to distinguish between privacy and anonymity. But the biggest lesson to be learned from this case is, as you said, that it has proven that our technology works and that we cannot break the encryption protecting data such as emails, files and calendars. .

Data is the new black gold of our digital society and many business models are based on it. How do you see the future of personal data? Are you optimistic? Do you think there will be a real awareness on the part of the general public?

Right now it seems to me that we are at a tipping point. People around the world are increasingly aware of how companies collect personal data and turn users into commodities. This awareness has already enabled hundreds of millions of people to migrate to privacy-first services like Proton in the last year alone. So I’m optimistic. Awareness is growing and people are taking action. But big tech companies have noticed this too and are pushing a watered down version of privacy to the market, that privacy means “no one can access your data except us”. We do not agree with this definition. Our definition of privacy is “no one can access your data, period”. The question now is who will define privacy in the future. We think Proton’s version of privacy is the one that’s ultimately best for society.

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