ONEndy Yen stands at a picture window at his Swiss headquarters, surveying what on a clearer day would be a beautiful sight. Ahead on the horizon, the Alps are shrouded in gray rain clouds. Then Yen points to Proton’s neighbors in this nondescript business park near Geneva: several wristwatch companies and a dairy.
“The surroundings are very Swiss,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a strange place for a tech company. But we have our reasons.”
Among the benefits of Geneva: strict privacy laws and proximity to the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, from which Yen hires many of the top talent at his company Proton Technologies.
Proton has quietly risen to become one of the most vital tech companies for people who need to communicate without government surveillance, such as political dissidents and journalists. Its best-known offerings are ProtonMail, its encrypted email service, and ProtonVPN, its virtual private network. Originally founded to erode the power of oppressive dictatorships, Proton’s tools are now widely used across the world, including in Ukraine and Russia, as the current war rages on.
Proton products are end-to-end encrypted, which means that in transit and in storage on Proton’s servers, user data is scrambled so that, with mathematical certainty, it can only be decrypted by the intended recipients. The Proton team couldn’t read the messages even if they wanted to. Neither do state authorities. It’s the same technology banks use to ensure your credit card details aren’t stolen while you shop online, and the way encrypted instant messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp ensure the contents of your texts stay private.
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Proton’s offer is also proving important for Russians looking to escape the Kremlin’s web censorship. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, ProtonVPN has become one of the most popular tools for internet users to access blocked independent news sites and social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The app is currently the third most popular iOS VPN in Russia, according to data shared with TIME by analytics firm data.ai, which also shows that the app has been downloaded 1.1 million times in March 2022.
“It has been one of the most popular VPN services among our Russian users since the hack,” says Simon Migliano, head of research at VPN comparison site Top10VPN. “It is also among the most popular globally over the same period.”
pushing for privacy
Proton offers versions of all its apps for free, but it offers extra features for users who pay a fee equivalent to several dollars a month. As a result, the company has found a path to profitability that doesn’t require surveillance of users for ad dollars. “Our model is different,” says Yen. “We are serving users and not advertisers.” The model appears to be working. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Proton had around 100 employees worldwide. Today it has more than 400, a number expected to double in the next two years. Yen points to a wall at Proton headquarters that he says will soon be torn down to accommodate new employees in the neighboring space.
Last year, Proton also released two big new products meant to compete with Big Tech: Proton Drive and Proton Calendar, two apps that are end-to-end encrypted, unlike the equivalent tools offered by Apple and Google. (Apple and Google say they encrypt users’ email data in transit and their calendar and drive data in transit and in storage. But the companies retain the ability to decrypt and process the data themselves, which (meaning that data isn’t “end-to-end” encrypted, as Proton’s services are.) Yen says Proton’s new calendar and unit apps are part of a concerted effort to build a privacy-focused “ecosystem” to rival the less private offerings of big tech companies, many of which profit from mining users’ personal data to sell targeted ads. Yen believes that if users had more privacy protection alternatives, they would use them. “One of the reasons privacy doesn’t really exist online today is because there’s no competition,” says Yen. “For a long time, people saw antitrust and privacy as separate issues. What is becoming increasingly clear is that these are actually a problem.”
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As a result, Proton has become an increasingly active player in Washington, DC, where some lawmakers want to rein in Big Tech. Earlier this month, Proton publicly lent its support to two antitrust bills in the US Congress that, if passed, would prevent Apple and Google from preferring their own services (like Google Drive or iCloud) on phone operating systems. they have – or to accept payment cuts made through their app stores. “By making it easier for companies like Proton to compete on a level playing field, Google will have to respond and provide more privacy to stay competitive,” says Yen.
Apple spokeswoman Hannah Smith declined to comment on the record, and Google did not respond to a request for comment. Both companies have already rejected the argument that app store rules are bad for competition and said antitrust laws would harm user privacy and security.
“For many years,” says Yen, “the accepted common knowledge was that the only way to make money online was to adopt the Google model—that surveillance capitalism was the way to go if you wanted a profitable, sustainable, and scalable business. . We prove that there is another way.”
Yen never set out to run a technology company. He grew up in Taiwan, earned a doctorate in particle physics at Harvard, then came to Switzerland to work at CERN – the nuclear research facility where a young computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee sketched a prototype for the World Wide Web in 1989.
Yen always thought he would be a physicist for life, but his background has influenced his views on internet freedom. He says the experience of seeing Beijing exert greater control over Taiwan’s neighboring Hong Kong has taught him that privacy can quickly disappear under authoritarian regimes. “Being from Taiwan, it informs your worldview and your opinion,” he says. “The reason I created Proton, and the reason I am deeply committed to our mission, is because there is a direct link between what we do and what I see as ensuring that democracy and freedom can survive in the 21st century. ”
In 2013, Yen was dropped from his course as a particle physicist, on his way to becoming a technology CEO. That summer, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was routinely monitoring the internet activity of millions of people around the world, aided by compatible technology companies.
For Yen, it was clear that “the internet had moved in a very different direction from what the founding principles were when it was created at CERN,” he says. “Today, what we think of as the free and open internet is controlled by a small number of governments and an even smaller number of tech giants that truly dominate and control every aspect of our lives. The motivation for creating Proton was that there had to be a different way for technology and the internet to evolve.”
Yen references an obscure maxim of particle physics, perturbation theory, to explain his career path. It is a method used to find an approximate solution to a large and complex problem by first finding the exact answer to a related but simpler problem. In Yen’s view, the big problem exposed by Snowden’s revelations was the lack of privacy-focused communications technologies that would make wholesale surveillance impossible. To come up with a rough solution to this problem, fixing the email would be a simpler first step than stopping online surveillance altogether.
The public’s level of enthusiasm took him and his fledgling company by surprise. A few days after its launch in 2014, ProtonMail’s servers crashed due to unprecedented user demand. The company turned to a crowdfunding site, asking users for $100,000 to cover the costs of the new infrastructure. Five days later, users pledged to double that number, and in the end, the fundraiser raised around $550,000 from over 10,000 supporters. Yen says the seed funding helped Proton avoid handing control of the company to outside investors. Instead, he says, the company’s shares are distributed almost entirely among employees.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, however. Last year, ProtonMail was hit by a round of bad press after it turned over data on one of its users to French police in response to a legal request. Police investigating a group of climate activists in Paris sought information about the identity of a person behind a specific ProtonMail address linked to the illegal occupation of a property. Swiss authorities approved the request, meaning Proton was forced to initiate registration and then hand over the user’s IP address. He gave the police enough evidence to arrest the activist.
ProtonMail users were outraged, with some questioning why a service committed to privacy would respond to such a request. Yen’s response at the time was that while he chose Proton’s base in Switzerland due to the country’s strict privacy protections, the company still needed to comply with Swiss law. And while it generally protects an individual’s privacy, the law does not guarantee this in all cases.
Looking back several months later, Yen says that despite all the bad press, in some ways, the case helped Proton demonstrate how little data it has on its users. “This case demonstrated very clearly that Proton’s encryption couldn’t be bypassed – there was no way to deliver the encrypted messages,” he says, noting that the only data the company had access to was the user’s IP address. With a smile, he confirms that Proton would not be able to provide this to the authorities if the user was masking with a VPN.
A work in progress
There’s no denying that today, Proton’s email, file-sharing and calendar services lack the bells and whistles of Apple and Google’s alternatives. Yen says an important avenue of Proton’s current work is making its existing services, available in app stores, more convenient. “If you ask someone, ‘Do you want more privacy and security?’ the answer is never ‘No,’” he says. [convenience] barrier goes, more people will make the leap.”
It’s a work in progress, just like the antitrust bills Proton has supported, which seem unlikely to become law anytime soon due to inertia in Congress. But the company’s strategy has already yielded unexpected dividends. Today, many of Proton’s newest employees are arriving from the big tech companies themselves, determined to work toward a different view of the internet, says Yen. “At the end of the day, employees face a choice,” he says. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling ads or would you like to work on something essential to defending democracy in the 21st century?”
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