Feeds

CERN and MIT chaps' secure webmail stalled by stampede of users

Proton Mail encrypts text in the browser and doesn't collect metadata

Build a business case: developing custom apps

A bunch of CERN alumni has taken time out of the weighty world of particle physics to take another shot at cracking the e-mail encryption nut.

Their offering, Proton Mail, has gone into public beta, and proved so popular the group has had to suspend new registrations while it upgrades its servers.

As a concept, encrypting e-mail goes back at least to the earliest days of PGP – Pretty Good Privacy – that got Phil Zimmerman in so much trouble back in the day (he suffered a long criminal investigation by the US Customs Service, as outlined briefly at Wikipedia) .

PGP, which lives on in various open-source tools today, ran encryption alongside users' e-mail clients and was widely seen as too difficult for the average user. In the world of Webmail, encryption happens at the server end, and as Lavabit found to its cost, that leaves user data subject to the demands of law enforcement.

Proton Mail even nods towards PGP: “In truth, there is not a whole lot that ProtonMail does that is not already accomplished by PGP, at least from a security standpoint," the outfit notes. "But, to quote what Bruce Schneier said to us when he visited MIT, 'all PGP has demonstrated is that even one click is too much'.”

“What we really want to provide is privacy for the much larger segment of the population that isn't sophisticated enough to use PGP.”

Proton Mail is a Webmail that encrypts messages at the client-side – within the user's browser – so that the user doesn't have to delegate encryption and trust to the provider. The organisation doesn't log user activity, so information like IP addresses and other metadata aren't available.

It runs AES, RSA and OpenPGP implementations on open source cryptographic libraries, while at the server end, Proton Mail runs full disk encryption in its Swiss data centres (Switzerland was chosen as offering the best available privacy legislation).

While the system is designed to be a crypto-for-dummies operation, it does demand that users have two passwords: one to authenticate yourself with its servers, and the second local password for decrypting messages. El Reg would suggest using a password manager for the second, since Proton Mail can't re-issue a password that it never held.

There's also an optional self-destruct feature for messages, and users can deal with other e-mail providers either unencrypted, or using symmetric encryption.

Some of the developers remain at CERN, while others are now at MIT.

There's some interviews with the founders, Jason Stockman, Wei Sun, Andy Yen, in this piece at Forbes – even if the headline, “The Only Email System The NSA Can't Access”, is something of a howler.

The developers told Forbes they chose to “bootstrap” rather than seek VC funding to maintain their credibility among users. The service will be priced on a fee-for-storage model, at US$5 for 1GB. ®

Next gen security for virtualised datacentres

More from The Register

next story
Goog says patch⁵⁰ your Chrome
64-bit browser loads cat vids FIFTEEN PERCENT faster!
e-Borders fiasco: Brits stung for £224m after US IT giant sues UK govt
Defeat to Raytheon branded 'catastrophic result'
Chinese hackers spied on investigators of Flight MH370 - report
Classified data on flight's disappearance pinched
NIST to sysadmins: clean up your SSH mess
Too many keys, too badly managed
Linux kernel devs made to finger their dongles before contributing code
Two-factor auth enabled for Kernel.org repositories
Attack flogged through shiny-clicky social media buttons
66,000 users popped by malicious Flash fudging add-on
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Scale data protection with your virtual environment
To scale at the rate of virtualization growth, data protection solutions need to adopt new capabilities and simplify current features.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?