Encrypted email service ProtonMail comes out of beta, unveils iOS and Android apps

Strong encryption and privacy are a social and economic necessity, says company chief: service has more than one million users.

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More than 10,000 people per day are signing up for encrypted email app ProtonMail.

Image: iStock

Encrypted email company ProtonMail is dropping the beta tag and launching free iOS and Android apps in the Apple App Store and Google Play store.

After launching in 2014 in what it describes as "the post-Snowden environment", ProtonMail said it was hit with "overwhelming demand" after signups exceeded 10,000 per day.

Since then, ProtonMail has been an invitation-only service but even so has over one million users on its closed beta, including businesses, journalists, activists, and private individuals.

The company offers an end-to-end encrypted email service which it said makes it "practically impossible" for governments, or the company itself, to gain access to user messages.

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Since the Snowden revelations about the pervasive use of online surveillance by governments, demand for encrypted communications has rocketed. Many popular services now use some type of encryption, and the use of end-to-end encryption -- which means only the sender and recipient can read a message -- is also growing.

This growth has led police and intelligence agencies to warn that they are struggling to intercept communications by criminals and terrorists: privacy campaigners argue that states are already infringing too much on the privacy of individuals and that encryption is a vital way of preventing further erosion.

It is into this complicated mix that ProtonMail is coming out of beta, firmly on the side of the privacy advocates.

"Strong encryption and privacy are a social and economic necessity. Not only does this technology protect activists and dissidents, it is also key to securing the world's digital infrastructure," ProtonMail co-founder Andy Yen said.

"This is why all things considered, strong encryption is absolutely necessary for the greater good."

The encryption and privacy debate has been rumbling on for some time now but recently has heated up with the FBI clashing with Apple over whether the company must unlock an iPhone used in the San Bernadino shootings.

ProtonMail said in light of "recent challenges against encryption and privacy" it has decided to open the service for public registration, so anyone who wants an encrypted email account can obtain one immediately.

"The best way to ensure that encryption and privacy rights are not encroached upon is to get the tools into the hands of the public as soon as possible and widely distributing them," Yen said. "This way, we put the choice in the hands of the consumer, and not government regulators."

The company, founded by a group of scientists who met at CERN and MIT, is based in Switzerland. Its service launched in beta in May 2014.

The initial funding for the company crowdfunding campaign raised $550,000. Its client-side code is open source and reviewed by its community.

The growth of ProtonMail reflects another problem facing governments that want to limit the use of encrypted communications. While legislation such as the UK's Investigatory Powers Bill will allow them to require local communications companies to remove the encryption they have applied, they will struggle to demand the same of companies based in other countries.

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