I was very pleased to have one of my posts from the recent TEDGlobal I attended in Rio de Janeiro published in Business Review Weekly – Australia’s most prestigious business magazine. You can read the edited version here on their site but I’ve pasted the full version below…
“As the internet turns 25 we have mostly lost the idea of privacy itself.”
Is privacy dead? Andy Yen strongly believes it isn’t and with a new email platform he co-founded last year called Protonmail, he hopes to turn the tables on how government, industry and society generally think about privacy and secrecy. Speaking at TEDGlobal in Rio de Janeiro this week, his radical new concept of how to protect our privacy has important ramifications for consumers, businesses and security agencies alike.
Andy Yen isn’t a technology developer by trade, but a particle physicist (hence the name) at (CERN European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland. But as the full implications of the Snowden revelations became clear, he and his colleagues became concerned at the way that people’s privacy had become a commodity no longer respected by organisations, particularly intelligence agencies or online advertisers. Our personal email, secrets, intimate thoughts or intellectual property were being traded in the open market without our consent.
“We have largely lost control of our data and privacy.”
So along with colleagues working in the CERN canteen, Yen developed Protonmail, a unique mail service that encrypts your email at the browser level, rather than at the server level. This is important because it means that Protonmail has no access to your account or mail. This not only locks out Protonmail staff themselves, but everyone else from government agencies to hackers or industrial spies.
The service has clearly hit a raw nerve, with over 250,000 users so far, and more than USD$500,000 in crowd sourced funding from Idiegogo – a record for a software project.
But the service is of course controversial. PayPal quietly froze Protonmail’s account when they became concerned that the company didn’t have permission to encrypt users’ emails. Set against a sensitive security climate where the Australian Attorney General is seeking additional powers for ASIO and concern rises about the way that companies like Google and Facebook access users’ content for advertising purposes; the service will continue to polarise. However at the heart of it all lie the questions: what is privacy, what responsibilities do businesses and governments have to protect it and why should we give it up now that technology exists to protect it? Yen’s Protonmail has certainly put the cat amongst the privacy debate pigeons.