Launched back in 2014, ProtonMail is an encrypted email provider founded by former CERN scientists. The main goal of ProtonMail is to protect its users privacy, to that end it utilises both end-to-end encryption and zero access encryption, provides a free secure VPN, calendar, and online storage. The company is based in Switzerland due to their robust data privacy laws and spends a great deal of time and money championing the cause of data privacy internationally. Finally it provides a clean and modern user interface from which you can access and manage your email.
One of the biggest issues with email as it currently stands is that it lacks encryption, everything is sent in plain text and any server that handles your mail on it’s journey across the internet can read it. ProtonMail uses end-to-end encryption which means it encrypts your email when it’s in transit to and from your device and the ProtonMail servers, in fact, if the email is being sent to another ProtonMail user it remains encrypted throughout the entire journey.
If you want to send an encrypted message to a user outside the ProtonMail network ProtonMail also makes this easy, however you will need to give them a password in advance so that they can use to open the message. ProtonMail does allow you to use PGP with external contacts however this is not as easy and will require a bit more technical knowhow on the part of the receiver.
Zero Access Encryption
Not only is your data encrypted but ProtonMail don’t have the keys. This makes it impossible for ProtonMail to access your data no matter what requests or legal demands they may receive, it also means that even if someone got physical access to ProtonMail’s servers or if data was leaked in a hack that all anyone would be able to get would be the encrypted data.
This is fantastic from a data privacy point of view however I should point out that there is one major drawback of all this which is that if you forget your password there is no way for ProtonMail give you access to your old emails or reset your account password. It’s not actually as bad as it sounds because ProtonMail provides you with several ways to regain access to your account and a couple of ways to regain access to your data, the easiest of which is a recovery phrase. However this is all on you, so if you forget where you stored your recovery phrase, or you never set one up to begin with, you could be in trouble!
What I like About ProtonMail
I really can’t emphasise enough just how much I like the new ProtonMail web interface. It’s clean and modern, is personalisable, and comes packed with features. I’m really not a fan of either the Outlook or Gmail web interface, both seem cluttered, a bit ugly and I sometimes have difficulty finding what I want. I know this is subjective and it’s all personal preference but I find ProtonMail a pleasure to use.
Another thing I really appreciate is the family of other services that ProtonMail offers. Having a calendar provides a useful alternative if you are trying to move away from another ecosystem like Google or Microsoft, the inclusion of an encrypted storage drive is a very nice addition, and although I don’t really make use of it I also appreciate having the option of using Proton VPN.
One other little feature I’d like to highlight is the @pm.me short domain that all ProtonMail accounts can use as an alternative to @protonmail.com, it’s quicker to type and if you’re giving out your email address to someone who isn’t familiar with the service there’s less risk of them misspelling it.
What Could Use Improvement
The current mobile app could use a lot of improvement, fortunately there is a new version in the works and it’s easy to opt in to the beta, however, it’s clear that at the time of writing the beta still has some bugs. I should point out that you don’t have to use the ProtonMail app, if you prefer to use another app you can download ProtonMail Bridge which will act as a proxy, downloading and unencrypting your emails and passing them to the app of your choice. Personally I’m happy using the beta version of the ProtonMail app but it still has some creases to iron out.
Opening documents (.docx for example) that have been attached to an email you have received can also be a pain point, if you have something installed locally that can open them like Microsoft Office then this isn’t an issue. However it is nice that in Gmail and Outlook you can just option documents in the browser.
ProtonMail has a free tier so that anyone can benefit from the privacy that their system provides, however it’s lacking in some basic features such as mail filters, and limits your use of mail folders / labels. Additionally if you want to use a custom domain name for your email address, then like most other providers, ProtonMail will require you to upgrade to a paid plan.
At the time of writing the cheapest paid plan starts from €5 / Month and includes pretty much everything a regular user would want. For users that want to use multiple custom domains with the same account or receive thousands of emails per day which they can filter into hundreds of different labels there are higher level plans but for most regular users this will be overkill.
Personally I think the lack of mail filters kills the usefulness of the free plan, although it is nice that it exists and allows you to checkout ProtonMail for yourself. However, I do think that ProtonMail is worth the €5 / Month of a Plus plan, if you care about your privacy ProtonMail is one of the few companies that take things seriously and comes with few compromises in terms of usability.
If you’re interested check out ProtonMail for yourself.