ndy Yen is standing at a panorama window in his Swiss headquarters, looking out over what would have been a stunning view on a brighter day. Overhead, gray rain clouds cover the Alps. So Yen points down instead, at Proton’s neighbors in this nondescript business park near Geneva: several wristwatch companies and a dairy factory.
“The surroundings are very Swiss,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a weird location for a tech company. But we have our reasons.”
Among Geneva’s benefits: strict privacy laws, and proximity to the world’s largest particle physics lab, out of which Yen hires much of his company Proton Technologies’ top talent.
Proton quietly rose to be one of the top tech companies that allows people to communicate with each other without being monitored by government agencies, including journalists and political dissidents. Its most well-known offerings are ProtonMail, its encrypted email service, and ProtonVPN, its virtual-private-network. Originally founded to erode the power of oppressive dictatorships, Proton’s tools are now used widely around the world, including in Ukraine and Russia as the current war rages.
Proton’s products are end-to-end encrypted, meaning that in transit and in storage on Proton’s servers, users’ data are scrambled so that—with mathematical certainty—they can only be decoded by the intended recipients. Proton’s team could not even read these messages, no matter how hard they tried. State authorities cannot either. It’s the same technology that banks use to make sure your credit card details can’t be stolen while you’re shopping online, and the way that encrypted instant messaging apps like Signal and WhatsApp ensure the contents of your texts remain private.
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Proton’s offering is also proving important for Russians seeking to evade the Kremlin’s web censorship. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, ProtonVPN has become one of the most popular tools for internet users to access blocked independent news sites and social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. According to data from data.ai shared with TIME, the app is the third most popular iOS VPN in Russia. This also indicates that it was downloaded over 1.1 million times between March 2022 and 2023.
“It has been one of the most popular VPN services with our Russian users since the invasion,” says Simon Migliano, the head of research at the VPN comparison site Top10VPN. “It’s also among the most popular globally over the same period.”
Proton gives users access to all versions of the apps at no cost, while paying a monthly fee for extra features. As a result, the company has found a path to profitability that doesn’t require surveilling users for ad dollars. “Our model is different,” Yen says. “We’re serving users and not advertisers.” The model appears to be working. Proton employed around 100 people around the globe at the time of the COVID-19 epidemic. It now has over 400 employees, which is expected to increase by two-thirds in the coming years. Yen gestures to a wall in Proton’s headquarters that he says will soon be knocked down to accommodate new employees in the neighboring space.
Proton also introduced two new major products in the past year to challenge Big Tech. Proton drive and Proton calendar are two apps that have been end-to-end encrypted and not like the Google and Apple equivalents. (Apple and Google both say they encrypt users’ mail data in transit, and their calendar and drive data both in transit and in storage. But the companies retain the ability to decrypt and process the data themselves, meaning the data is not encrypted from “end-to-end,” like Proton’s services are.) Yen says Proton’s new calendar and drive apps are part of a concerted push to build a privacy-focused “ecosystem” to rival the less private offerings from the Big Tech companies, many of whom profit from mining the personal data of users to sell targeted ads. Yen believes that if users had more privacy-protecting alternatives, they’d use them. “One of the reasons privacy doesn’t really exist online today is because there’s no competition,” Yen says. “For a long time, people looked at antitrust and privacy as separate issues. What is becoming more and more clear, is that these are actually one issue.”
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Proton is now a prominent player in Washington, D.C., which some legislators want to limit Big Tech. Earlier this month, Proton publicly lent its support to two draft antitrust bills in the U.S. Congress, which if passed would prevent Apple and Google from preferencing their own services (such as Google Drive or iCloud) on the phone operating systems that they own—or from taking cuts of payments made through their app stores. “By making it easier for companies like Proton to compete on a level playing field, Google will have to respond and provide more privacy in order to stay competitive,” Yen says.
Hannah Smith from Apple declined to comment. Google didn’t respond to an inquiry for comment. The argument that the app store rules were bad for competition has been rejected by both companies. They also claimed the antitrust bills would cause harm to user security and privacy.
“For many years,” Yen says, “the accepted common knowledge was that the only way to make money online was to adopt Google’s model—that surveillance capitalism was the way to go if you wanted a profitable and sustainable and scalable business. We have proven that there is another path.”
Change your course
Yen did not set out in his life to manage a technology company. He grew up in Taiwan, obtained a PhD in particle physics from Harvard, then came to Switzerland to take a job at CERN—the nuclear research facility where a young computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee had first sketched out a prototype for the World Wide Web in 1989.
Yen always thought he’d be a physicist for life, but his background has influenced his views about internet freedom. He says that the experience of watching Beijing exert greater control over Hong Kong, Taiwan’s neighbor, revealed to him that privacy could quickly disappear in the face of authoritarian regimes. “Being from Taiwan, that does inform your worldview and your opinion,” he says. “ The reason I created Proton, and the reason that I’m very deeply committed to our mission, is because there is a direct link between what we do and what I see as ensuring that democracy and freedom can survive in the 21st century.”
In 2013, Yen lost his job as a particle physicist and was sent down the road to become a CEO of a technology company. Edward Snowden, a whistleblower, revealed in the summer that the U.S. National Security Agency was regularly monitoring the internet activities of many millions of people all over the globe, with the help of compliant technology companies.
To Yen, it was apparent that “the internet had moved in a very different direction from what the founding principles were when it was created at CERN,” he says. “Today, what we think of as the free and open internet is controlled by a small number of governments and an even smaller number of tech giants that really dominate and control every aspect of our lives. The motivation for creating Proton was that there had to be a different way for technology and the internet to evolve.”
To explain his career path, Yen refers to an obscure maxim in particle physics called perturbation theory. It is a method used for finding an approximate solution to a large, complex problem by first finding the exact answer to a related—but simpler—problem. In Yen’s view, the overarching problem laid bare by Snowden’s revelations was the lack of privacy-focused communications technologies that would make wholesale surveillance impossible. It would be easier to fix email than stop online surveillance in order to find an acceptable solution.
His company was taken by surprise when the public showed such enthusiasm. Within days of its launch in 2014, ProtonMail’s servers crashed due to unprecedented user demand. To pay for the new infrastructure costs, ProtonMail turned to crowdfunding and asked users to donate $100,000. The fundraiser raised $550,000, with more than 10,000 people contributing. Yen claims that Proton has stayed in control by not giving up its initial funding. He claims that shares are almost exclusively distributed among employees.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however. ProtonMail received a lot of negative press last year after it provided data regarding one of its users to French authorities in response to an official request. Paris police were investigating climate activists and wanted to know the identity of the person responsible for a ProtonMail account that was linked with the illegal occupation of property. Swiss authorities approved the request, meaning Proton was forced to begin logging, and then hand over, the user’s IP address. This provided enough evidence for the police to make an arrest.
ProtonMail subscribers were incensed and some questioned why ProtonMail, a privacy-conscious service, would grant such an request. Yen’s answer at the time was that, although he had chosen to base Proton in Switzerland due to the country’s strict privacy protections, the company still had to comply with Swiss law. And while generally protective of an individual’s privacy, the law does not guarantee it in all cases.
Yen claims that Proton helped to prove how limited its user data was, despite negative publicity several months later. “This case very clearly demonstrated that Proton’s encryption cannot be bypassed—there was no way in which we could hand over the encrypted messages,” he says, noting that the only data the company had access to was the user’s IP address. He smiled and confirmed that Proton wouldn’t have been able to provide authorities with this information, even if the VPN was used.
A work in progress
There’s no denying that today, Proton’s email, file-sharing and calendar services lack the bells and whistles of the alternatives by Apple and Google. Yen states that Proton has a major focus on making existing services easier to use, available via app stores. “If you ask anybody, ‘Do you want more privacy and security?’ the answer is never ‘No,’” he says.“The lower that [convenience] barrier goes, the more people are going to make the jump.”
It’s a work in progress, just like the antitrust bills that Proton has lent its support to, which appear unlikely to make it into law any time soon due to inertia in Congress. But the company’s strategy has already paid an unexpected dividend. Today, many of Proton’s newest employees are arriving from the Big Tech companies themselves, determined to work toward a different vision of the internet, Yen says. “At the end of the day, employees face a choice,” he says. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life furthering the selling of advertisements, or would you like to work on something that is essential for defending democracy in the twenty-first century?”
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