Brief: Have a look at ProtonMail, a secure, privacy-focused email provider that you can use as an alternative to Gmail.
I, like most people in 2017, use email every single day. I, also like most people in 2017, have several email addresses that I manage.
The difference between most people in 2017 and myself is which email providers we use. I am going to throw out a wild guess and say you use a Gmail account as your main email address. And if you don’t I bet you know SEVERAL people that do.
And that’ an issue for a privacy-focused person like me. You probably already know that Google reads your emails. And I don’t want Google to do that, especially for my business emails.
I do use Gmail but only as a “spam” email address. That means it’s the email address I give to people or services when I don’t want them to have one of my actual email addresses.
One of those email addresses is powered by an open source service called ProtonMail, and I am here to tell you why ProtonMail should be one of your “actual” email addresses.
What is ProtonMail?
ProtonMail is a Swiss-based and privacy-centric email provider like Gmail. You can get a free @protonmail.com account or you can you can use your own custom domain for a very small fee.
ProtonMail describes themselves as “scientists, engineers, and developers drawn together by a shared vision of protecting civil liberties online.” And based on what I have seen thus far, I can attest to this self-proclamation.
But why does this matter? You may say “I already use Gmail and it has done me fine up to this point, so why would I switch?” Well, let me show you how good is ProtonMail. And perhaps after that, you would turn your Gmail account into your junk account and switch to a ProtonMail account.
Though this is not really a ProtonMail review, I’ll also highlight the negative points of using ProtonMail.
Why use ProtonMail?
Let’s first see the plus point of using ProtonMail.
1. Privacy and security
Since ProtonMail focuses so much on security it only makes sense for it to be a reason why you would want to use it. First off, since ProtonMail is Switzerland based, strict Swiss privacy laws protect their servers. Because of this, they are able to implement end to end encryption without a hassle. That means that ProtonMail’s servers encrypt your email at every step of the way. Because of this client-side encryption, the risk of a third party collecting your email against your knowledge is “largely eliminated.” You and those you are emailing are the only ones able to read your emails.
What this also means is that your personal data is not accessible to even the folks at ProtonMail. They don’t even have the technical ability to read your emails if they wanted to. ProtonMail says “[your] privacy isn’t just a promise, it is mathematically ensured”, which settles any questions you may have about the level of security they are offering.
Not only are these bold claims, but we can count on them keeping these promises for one major reason: ProtonMail is Open Source! Not only are they secure, but in using Open Source libraries ProtonMail is fundamentally transparent. There are no secrets, no data mining, nothing. ProtonMail doesn’t just talk-the-talk, they walk-the-walk, and they have the source code to back it up. That is something those other email providers simply cannot say.
2. ProtonMail custom domain
This is the part that blew me away when I first found out about ProtonMail. When I heard about what they offered and their reasoning behind it my first thought was “OK cool. Now how much do you cost, an arm and a leg?” Then, to my surprise, I found that, like Gmail, ProtonMail starts at a grand total of $0 a month. Yep, you read that correctly. Totally free. No tricks. No trials. Nothing.
Now that does come with a few caveats of course. You get one email address, a limit of 500 Mb of storage, a max of 150 messages per day, and a few other limitations. For $5 a month you can have up to 5 email addresses, you get up to 5 Gb of storage, and you can send up to 1000 messages a day. For only a couple bucks a month that is a substantial upgrade. They also offer a couple of other plans that progressively get more expensive but continue to offer more and more features. You can even pay for a ProtonMail VPN for a couple more dollars a month.
3. Open Source
While this might not be everyone’s concern, I know there are people like who want their software free and open source. You can browse through the source code of ProtonMail that is available on GitHub.
4. Intuitive UI
Unlike some other legacy open source email clients, ProtonMail boasts of a nice modern UI. You can add labels, stars etc to categorize your emails.
You can access ProtonMail on a web browser, that’s not surprising. But ProtonMail also has its own native iOS and Android app to keep you connected, always. This makes it ideal for personal as well as business use.
The downsides of using ProtonMail
So at this point, you have only heard me say a plethora of great things about the service. You may wonder what the downsides of ProtonMail are. Though there aren’t many setbacks there are a few things that you might want to be mindful of before you switch.
1. No third-party integration
Because of ProtonMail’s zero access architecture, you cannot use ProtonMail on a third-party email client. I use Geary, one of the best email clients for Linux, as my desktop email application, and as far as I can tell it is not compatible with ProtonMail.
That means you are stuck using the web client or the mobile application that they offer. Though this may take a second to get used to, I don’t think this is a big deal. A majority of the internet’s average users use the Gmail web client anyway, and because ProtonMail makes their own mobile application you don’t have to mess around with configuring a third party email client. It works out of the gate.
2. Limited features in the free version
Another reason you might be wary about switching to ProtonMail is the limitations on the free account. You get limited storage, limited support, limited organization features, etc. Unless you are content with those limitations, you will need to fork out the minimum $5 a month to start getting some of those premium features.
Now let’s be honest. Those limitations sound worse than they are. I have been using the free ProtonMail account for months and I have used 1% of the 500 Mb. And on top of that, how many of us can actually say we send and receive more than 150 emails a day? I sure can’t.
3. No easy account recovery
The third reason you might be hesitant to use ProtonMail is also the best feature: encryption. This could be a bad thing because with accounts like Gmail if you forget your password you can ask Google to recover your information. They don’t encrypt your information so it is not a problem.
Since ProtonMail has encryption and a zero-knowledge policy for their customers if you forget your password there is nothing ProtonMail can do. Your information is encrypted forever. Because they respect your privacy, using ProtonMail requires a little bit more responsibility on our end. Strong passwords/pass-phrases that are easy to remember and written down in a safe place are essential when using ProtonMail. So if you are not capable of or will to do that then ProtonMail may not be for you.
I have a very specific use case for ProtonMail. I use the free version for all my online accounts and social media profiles. My ProtonMail account also acts as the recovery email for the business email address I use. That way I know all my personal data is secure, as I always have ProtonMail as a safety net for all my accounts.
Though I do not need the premium benefits they offer, I still obliged to donate to ProtonMail anyway as my way of saying thank you. So obviously I like the product and I think you should give ProtonMail a chance too. As FOSS users, ProtonMail offers us a way of interacting that aligns with our values and passions. So give it a shot and let us know what you think. I GUARANTEE you will not be dissatisfied.