The Easiest Way to Send and Receive Encrypted Emails

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Last year I wrote a post about Mailvelope — an easy way of sending encrypted plain-text Gmail messages. Since the idea behind Mailvelope was picked up by German companies GMX.de and Web.de to provide end-to-end encryption for their users. And that’s great news!

Today, I decided to write about another, an even simpler and more user-friendly, way to send and receive encrypted emails — the Swiss ProtonMail brought to you by MIT and CERN scientists.

With ProtonMail you get a full-fledged email encryption system without the need to install and set up anything.

What will you learn in this post?

I will show you:

  • that it is important to protect your online privacy
  • how to use ProtonMail to send encrypted email to anyone
  • how to reply to such an encrypted email even without having a ProtonMail account
  • how to sign up for your own ProtonMail account

Why Encrypt Your Email?

This is what Andy Yen, CEO of ProtonMail, had to say about the reasons for creating ProtonMail at his TED speech:

Today, there’s a new generation that is being taught from a very young age to share everything online. And this is a generation that is not going to remember when data was private.

Privacy doesn’t have to be difficult, it doesn’t have to be disruptive. If we change the goal from maximizing revenue to protecting data, we can actually make it accessible.

We need to build an internet where privacy is no longer just an option, but is also the default.

Without protecting our [online] privacy, we simply cannot have a free society.

What is ProtonMail?

ProtonMail is a freemail service that comes with end-to-end encryption for all its users.

End-to-end encryption means that you, as a user of ProtonMail, can send an encrypted email to anyone inside or outside ProtonMail.

If you send an encrypted email to a Gmail user, they will get a notification to their email inbox like this:

ProtonMail notification message

ProtonMail notification message

When you click on the View Secure Message button, you are taken to a secure ProtonMail page where you can enter the password needed to actually read the contents of the encrypted message:

ProtonMail — Message Password

ProtonMail — Message Password

Replying to Encrypted Emails

Once you have read the message you can reply to it using the same secure ProtonMail platform. You don’t need to have a ProtonMail account to do this.

You just type in your reply message and the same password will be reused. You may even add attachments which will be also protected by the encryption system.

ProtonMail reply

ProtonMail reply

Encryption for the Average Joe and Jane

This is an excellent solution to the problem of encryption in everyday use. Most email users are put off by the complexity of setting up their own email encryption.

ProtonMail login page

ProtonMail login page

With ProtonMail, you basically just exchange messages (in email format) on ProtonMail’s servers and the whole process is encryption-protected at all times.

That’s why you set not only a login password for your account but also a mailbox decryption password:

ProtonMail — Decrypt Mailbox

ProtonMail — Decrypt Mailbox

This eliminates the possibility of message interception — there’s nothing to intercept, since nothing relevant ever leaves the ProtonMail servers.

The people behind ProtonMail never have access to your passwords, so they cannot decrypt your messages either.

The whole thing is open-source which is an extra step of trustworthiness in my eyes.

Even the user interface of ProtonMail bears a significant resemblance to Gmail — so you don’t have to learn anything new or experience anything out of the ordinary.

ProtonMail user interface

ProtonMail user interface

The lock and timer icons are the only notable differences.

Clicking on the lock icon lets you set a password for your encrypted message for non-ProtonMail users. Remember, ProtonMail uses encryption by default, so all messages sent among ProtonMail users are always encrypted.

Setting a password for non-ProtonMail users

Setting a password for non-ProtonMail users

Important Note

Make sure that you don’t use your account login password or your mailbox decryption password as single email encryption passwords.

Encrypted messages for non-ProtonMail users are stored on ProtonMail’s servers only for a limited amount of time. Clicking on the timer icon lets you specify this amount of time anywhere between an hour and 28 days.

Setting the email's expiration time

Setting the email’s expiration time

Get an Invitation

To start using ProtonMail, all you need to do is sign up for an account at protonmail.com.

They currently have an invitation-only model working. It seems that the user demand is higher than expected.

Request an invitation for ProtonMail

Request an invitation for ProtonMail

Anyway, as they are adding servers constantly, all you need is a bit of extra patience. (Something almost non-existent in the on-demand, real-time world of our online experience of today.)

It took them 2 weeks to send me an invitation email but it was worth the wait.

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