Since its foundation in 2014, ProtonMail became synonymous with easy-to-use encrypted email. Now the company is trying to be synonymous with much more. On Wednesday morning, he announced that he would change his name to simply Proton, a look at his broader ambitions within the online privacy universe. The company will now offer an “ecosystem” of linked products, all of which are accessed through a paid subscription. Proton subscribers will have access not only to encrypted email, but also to an encrypted calendar, a file storage platform, and a VPN.
All of this is part of CEO Andy Yen’s master plan to give Proton something like an opportunity to fight tech giants like Google. A former Taiwan-born particle physicist, Yen moved to Geneva, Switzerland, after graduate school to work at CERN, the nuclear research facility. Geneva turned out to be a natural place to become a privacy-focused startup, thanks to both the privacy-friendly Swiss legal regime and a steady harvest of stealthy physicists. Today, Yen presides over a company with more than 400 employees and nearly 70 million users. He recently spoke with WIRED about the continuing need for greater privacy, the dangers of Apple and Google’s dominance, and how current attacks on encryption recall the rhetorical tactics of the War on Terror.
This interview has been condensed and slightly edited.
WIRED: You are in the business of online privacy. To begin with, how do you define privacy?
Andy Yen: These days, everything Google and Apple and Big Tech are talking about is privacy, so the best way to give our definition is to give the contrast. The way Google defines privacy is, “No one can exploit your data except us.” Our definition is cleaner, simpler and more authentic: no one can exploit your data, period. We literally want to build things that give us access to as little data as possible. The use of end-to-end encryption and zero access encryption allows it. Because basically, we believe that the best way to protect users’ data is to not have it in the first place.
If you ask someone, “Would you like more privacy or less?” they always say more. But if you look at how people really behave, for most people, data privacy is not a very high priority. Why do you think this is?
Privacy is inherent in human beings. We have curtains on the windows, we have locks on our doors. But we tend to disconnect the digital world from the physical world. So if you take Google’s analogy, it’s someone who follows you every day, recording everything you say and every place you visit. In real life, we would never tolerate it. On the internet, somehow, because it’s not visible, we tend to think it’s not there. But the vigilance you don’t observe is usually much more insidious than the one you do.
Your company has supported reforms to strengthen antitrust law enforcement. But many people argue that privacy and competition are in conflict. Apple will say, “Forcing us to allow more competition on the platform we’re running will reduce our control over user security and privacy. So increasing our competition will reduce our privacy.” And then you see the other side of the argument, which is when Apple or Google implement a new privacy feature that can harm competitors. How do you think about these possible conflicts?