Fundraiser to support ‘NSA-proof’ email gets off to a roaring start

Fundraiser to support ‘NSA-proof’ email gets off to a roaring start

Above: ProtonMail founders Jason Stockman, Wei Sun, and Andy Yen.

Image Credit: ProtonMail

ProtonMail, an encrypted email service that advertises itself as “NSA-proof,” launched to much acclaim about a month ago.

Since then, the company says it has signed up 200,000 users – and it just launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo because, co-founder Andy Yen says, “that is the best way to get financing and also keep ProtonMail independent.”

Three days after the Indiegogo campaign kicked off, the team has already raised $160,000 — 60 percent more than its initial goal.

“We could be on track to become one of the largest software crowdfunding campaigns ever,” Yen boasted.

Accounts on ProtonMail are free (though at the moment you have to sign up for a waiting list before you can create an account). Yen said basic accounts would always be free, but that in the future the company would charge power users a “modest monthly fee” for additional storage, in order to make ProtonMail into a self-sustaining business.

End-to-end encryption is one of the few ways to ensure true privacy in any communications channel. The trouble is that setting up encrypted email has generally been a difficult matter. Encrypted chats have, until recently, been almost as problematic.

(One notable exception: Many chat clients, including Adium — but not Google Talk — offer an off-the-record (OTR) chat mode that is extremely simple to set up and offers “perfect forward secrecy,” meaning each chat session is encrypted with a unique key. If you want to chat securely with me, ask me for my AIM account.)

Other attempts to simplify the process of secure chat or secure email have occasionally been curtailed either by doubts about their technical security. CryptoCat, for example, is quite controversial among security experts because of a vulnerability an an earlier version of the chat tool. Security can also be compromised if the companies don’t have legal jurisdiction to ensure true privacy in the event of a subpoena — HushMail, for instance, has said that it will hand over your emails if subpoenaed.

So we asked Yen: Why should anyone trust ProtonMail?

“The main idea is to encrypt data before it even comes to our servers, using an encryption password that we do not have access to, so we don’t have the ability to decrypt the encrypted data on our servers,” Yen told us.

In other words, even if the NSA got hold of emails cached on ProtonMail’s servers, they would not be able to decrypt them — and ProtonMail won’t have the keys either.

Yen added that the team — which is comprised of CERN and MIT computer scientists — is being careful to get its technology vetted by security experts. “We’ve had constant input from the computer security team at CERN and hundreds of computer scientists on the staff there,” Yen said.

“We believe in crowdsourcing security and we have a growing list of experts helping us to perform security cross checks and make improvements throughout the beta. We will get even more of the community involved by open sourcing the relevant parts of the codebase when the code becomes more mature and changes less often.”

In addition, the company is headquartered in Switzerland, which — so far — has a pretty good record of independence from other governments’ intrusions.

The fact that 200,000 people have signed up for ProtonMail already is a sign that there’s a small but significant number of people who care enough about their privacy to use encrypted email systems. And other encrypted messaging services, such as SilentCircle and Wickr, have seen some traction — though they haven’t come close to rivaling the giants, like WhatsApp, Tango, or the big email services.

Maybe that’s because people don’t care much about privacy. Or maybe it’s because encryption is still too hard to use, or too mysterious of a concept.

“We feel the security community has an obligation to lower the entry barrier so people can get used to the idea of encryption and we can begin to educate them about encryption,” Yen said.

“That is how you get an installed user base that you can then gradually transition to more and more secure systems over time.”

Published on VentureBeat, June 21, 2014

Amazon’s Fire phone — and what it means

Hello everyone!

I wrote this post about the Amazon Fire phone yesterday morning.

At the time I wrote it, I didn’t yet know what the phone was called or any of its exact details — that came later in the day, with Amazon’s official unveiling. But, thanks to excellent reporting by VB writer Mark Sullivan and solid context from the rest of the VB team, I was able to put together a pretty good picture of what it would likely mean.

What Amazon’s ‘Fire Phone’ means — and why it could be a real contender

Why does a company that started as a bookseller, evolved into an e-commerce giant, and has seen some success selling Android tablets think that it can take on the ruthless market of smartphones?

What we have, in Amazon’s Fire phone, is a first draft of a smartphone from a company that has all the advantages of an Apple or a Google — and then some.

Amazon, in my opinion, is one of the few companies with a “full stack” of technology to back up a consumer electronics business: cloud services, software, an app store, content. In addition, it has an enormously efficient retail operation and it has credit card details for millions of consumers, making its phone a powerful potential digital wallet.

What we didn’t know is the extent to which Amazon would try to use its product knowledge — via its “Firefly” image recognition feature — to insert a wedge between its customers and the retail outlets they usually frequent. Imagine standing in the aisle at Walgreens, picking up a bottle of Excedrin, and pointing your phone at it. The phone recognizes the bottle, gives you details on what it contains — perhaps more than you can easily get from the label — and offers to ship you the bottle for substantially less. Because it has text recognition capabilities, the phone knows exactly what price Walgreens is selling it for, so Amazon can always undercut that price.

So far, nobody seems excited enough about this phone to actually buy it. But this is just the first version. I will say this, I’m getting a little scared of Amazon.

I’d like to hear what you think!

Some more coverage of the Amazon Fire phone from VB’s team:

 

 

In other news, I went to Paris last week to learn about the French tech economy. (I had some pretty good meals too.) What I saw was substantially different from what I expected. Here are some of the highlights:

 

 

“Few men have souls so dead that they will not bother to look up when they hear the barking of wild Geese.” –Roger Tory Peterson

The surfers v. the VC

Martins Beach photo from Yelp.

Martins Beach photo from Yelp.

So I’m on jury duty this week, and as I walk out of the courthouse on our lunch recess, I happen to see an older bearded gentleman in a suit, surrounded by some other suits, holding forth to a small pack of reporters.

“Oh, a courthouse steps interview,” I thought, so I sidled up to hear what was going on.

I quickly learned that the bearded gentleman was renowned California lawyer Joe Cotchett, and that he was there representing the Surfrider Foundation in a lawsuit against venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

Khosla, you see, bought a bunch of land south of Half Moon Bay back in 2008 and promptly closed off the access road to a popular beach that ran through the land. Called Martin’s Beach, it became a rallying point for locals who had been accustomed to using that beach — via this road — for decades.

It seems that Khosla’s lawyers had resisted bringing Khosla himself into court, but this morning, the judge ruled that he would have to appear, which was the occasion of Cotchett’s impromptu press conference. I hung around, pulled out a notebook, and got a few words with both Cotchett and former U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, himself a partner in Cotchett’s firm. I also heard them tell the story of how the firm sent McCloskey down to Martin’s Beach to jump the gate and trespass on Khosla’s land, which he did — though the sheriffs declined to arrest him for that, much as I’m sure the lawyers would have loved that.

So I banged out a couple hundred words after lunch, and filed my quick little story before going back into my (totally unrelated) trial.

All in all, it was a pretty classic moment in courthouse reporting, and almost made me wish I was on that beat.

Here’s my story, for what it’s worth:

Surfers to VC Vinod Khosla: We’ll see you in court

Finding focus in the mobile ad market

Mobile Summit 2014. Photo by Michael O'Donnell

Mobile Summit 2014. Photo by Michael O’Donnell

VentureBeat held its first event of the year, our annual Mobile Summit, last week in Sausalito.

My summary of the event appeared on our site this morning. If you work in the mobile ad industry, please give it a read and tell me what you think.

One other note: VB is hiring. I’m looking for a couple of ace reporters, either in San Francisco or New York. If you know someone who loves tech and knows how to get news that other writers don’t have, please put me in touch. I’m also looking for a social media manager (job description to come soon) to help us promote our articles and expand our presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and beyond. 

To find focus in a ballooning mobile-ad market, industry leaders turn to data

VentureBeat produces half a dozen events each year, every one focused on a different sector within the technology industry — but one of my favorites is the Mobile Summit.

The annual Mobile Summit, which we held last week, brings about 180 mobile industry executives to the lovely Cavallo Point Resort in Sausalito, Calif., just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The venue offers gorgeous views of the bridge, the bay, and the city across the water.

But mostly, it is a chance for this select group of executives, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists to network and to problem-solve.

A lot of the action happens at “boardroom sessions” that bring together up to 20 people at a time to talk in a focused, extended way about specific issues within the industry.

The Summit this year — our fourth such event — focused on the mobile advertising industry. That was a deliberate choice given how rapidly this sector has grown in the past year. Spurred in large part by Facebook’s rapid and remarkably successful move to make money off its mobile users, the industry at large has realized that there is a lot of money to be made through advertising to people on their smartphones and tablets.

Continue reading….

WhatsApp shows that Facebook & Google are serious about competing with telcos

$19 billion for WhatsApp only makes sense if you view it in the context of the pending battle that Facebook — and Google — are preparing to wage against the telcos that control their access to customers.

If you want to know what Facebook’s strategy might look like for the next five years, read this post: First, hurt the telcos. Second, find a way around them. Third, rally public opinion.

If you had any doubt about Facebook’s and Google’s intentions for the next five years, Facebook’s WhatsApp acquisition makes it clear: These Silicon Valley giants have no intention of remaining dependent on the caprices of the telcos.

In fact, we’re seeing the battle lines being drawn on what will be an epic business battle between telecommunications companies, which have controlled the Internet’s infrastructure for decades; and so-called “content” companies like Facebook and Google, which have been using that infrastructure to deliver their services to consumers.

Facebook was not willing to pay a record $19 billion for WhatsApp just because it’s a Twitter competitor, an SMS alternative, or a way to attract customers among youth in non-U.S. countries — though those are all significant.

The real reason Facebook was willing to pay so much is that WhatsApp represents a real threat to the carriers. That became clear earlier this week when WhatsApp unveiled its plans to offer voice calling within its app.

Read the rest on VentureBeat:  WhatsApp shows that Facebook & Google are serious about competing with telcos | VentureBeat | Business | by Dylan Tweney.

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning,” said Mark Twain.

An editor’s job, at its best, is about turning lightning bugs into lightning.