Andy Yen stands at a panoramic window in his headquarters in Switzerland, surveying what on a clearer day would be a beautiful view. Ahead on the horizon, the Alps are shrouded in gray rain clouds. 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’s top talent.
Proton has quietly risen to become one of the most vital tech companies for people who need to communicate without government surveillance, such as political dissidents and journalists. 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. The team at Proton could not read the messages even if they wanted to. Neither can state authorities. 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.
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. The app is currently the third-most popular iOS VPN in Russia, according to data shared with TIME by the analysis firm data.ai, which also shows that the app was downloaded 1.1 million times during March 2022.
“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 offers versions of all of its apps for free, but provides extra features to users who pay a fee equivalent to several dollars per month. 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. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Proton counted around 100 staff around the world. Today it has more than 400, a number predicted to double in the next two 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.
In the last year, Proton has also launched two major new products intended to compete with Big Tech: Proton Drive and Proton Calendar, two apps that are end-to-end encrypted, unlike the equivalent tools offered by Apple and Google. (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.”
As a result, Proton has become an increasingly vocal player in Washington, D.C., where some lawmakers want to rein in 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.
Apple declined to comment, and Google did not respond to a request for comment. Both companies have previously rejected the argument that their app store rules are bad for competition and have said the antitrust bills would harm user privacy and security.
“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.”
Yen never set out to run a tech 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 was knocked off his course as a particle physicist, down the path to becoming a tech CEO. That summer, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was routinely surveilling the internet activity of millions of people around the world, aided by 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.”
Yen references an obscure maxim from particle physics, perturbation theory, to explain his career trajectory. 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. To arrive at an approximate solution to that problem, fixing email would be a simpler first step than stopping online surveillance altogether.
The level of public enthusiasm took him and his nascent company by surprise. Within days of its launch in 2014, ProtonMail’s servers crashed due to unprecedented user demand. The company turned to a crowdfunding site, asking users for $100,000 to cover the costs of new infrastructure. Five days later, users had pledged double that number, and in the end the fundraiser collected some $550,000 from more than 10,000 supporters. Yen says the initial funding has helped Proton avoid giving control of the company away to external investors. Instead, he says, shares in the company are distributed almost entirely among employees.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however. Last year, ProtonMail was hit with a round of bad press after it handed over data about one of its users to French police, in response to a legal request. Police investigating a group of climate activists in Paris had sought information about the identity of a person behind a specific ProtonMail address linked to the illegal occupation of a property. Swiss authorities approved the request, meaning Proton was forced to begin logging, and then hand over, the user’s IP address. It gave the police enough evidence to arrest the activist.
ProtonMail users were outraged, with some questioning why a service committed to privacy would comply with such a 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.
Looking back several months later, Yen says that despite all the bad press, in some ways the case helped Proton to demonstrate just how little data it holds on its users. “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. With a smile, he confirms that Proton would not have been capable of even providing authorities with that, had the user been masking it with a VPN.
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 says that a key avenue of current work for Proton is making its existing services, which are available through app stores, more convenient. “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?”
Correction: May 17, 2022
The original version of this story twice misstated Proton’s name. It is Proton, not Proton Technologies.