Is Privacy Under Attack?

Andy Yen

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Updated on January 28th, 2019

Most of us at Proton Mail are part of the last generation born before the World Wide Web was created in 1989 at CERN in Switzerland. In the previous 30 years, the web has transformed our world, and we now spend more and more of our lives online. In the immediate aftermath of the Snowden revelations(new window), much of the online privacy discussion centered on government mass surveillance (NSA, GCHQ, etc.). It has only been recently that people have realized the private sector is a much more pervasive threat to privacy.

Current Model of Internet Businesses

To gain insight into why our privacy is eroding, let’s take a look at the surveillance capitalism(new window) that fuels today’s monopolistic Internet giants. Anyone with an Internet connection can read the latest news, listen to their favorite music, chat with friends, and search for anything online — all for free. In the past, we accepted these services for free without ever questioning how tech companies could afford their lavish salaries or their sprawling campuses built in the most expensive parts of the world. What society has come to realize is that in exchange for their free services, companies like Google and Facebook harvest and capitalize all the personal data they can get their hands on.

“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been.

We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Eric Schmidt(new window), CEO of Google, 2010

These are some of the largest companies in the world. To get a picture of the scale of these giants, during the 2018 fiscal year Facebook made $51.9 billion(new window) in revenue, of which 91% came from advertisements(new window). Alphabet, Google’s parent company, received 84%(new window) of its $129.9 billion in revenue (new window)from selling targeted advertisements it used your personal data to create.

Implications of Advertisements

Advertisements are more effective, and thus more valued, when they are shown to certain consumers at specific times. For example, a video game company would pay more to show their ads to gamers. However, an even better ad targets someone who is currently searching for related games. Naturally, companies that primarily depend on the surveillance capitalism business model are motivated to track, save, and learn as much as possible about their users. Under pressure to hit quarterly targets, these companies will continue to push privacy boundaries and increase their surveillance on everything we do to gain an advertising edge(new window).

It would be inaccurate to say we are users of these “free” services; we are really the product. From Google or Facebook’s point of view, the real customers are the businesses paying for the advertisements. We are just supplies of personal data to be capitalized. Ultimately this is bad business because the interests of companies and consumers are not aligned.

Implications of Big Data Technology

While advertisement revenue is the motivation driving the increasing invasion of our privacy, big data technology is the hammer that drives the nail into the coffin. Increasingly, cheap and more capable storage technologies allow businesses to save every bit of data they can get. Our browsing history, our GPS coordinates, and even our keystrokes as we type an email can all get saved. The everlasting nature of this data has dire consequences: it allows our privacy to be abused far into the future.

The software technology that makes sense of our data will continue to improve, boosted by the growing amount of data and faster hardware. We are already seeing speech and image recognition systems(new window) that rival humans in certain tasks. In another 30 years, it is inevitable that there will be widespread use of systems that can easily combine our data from disparate sources and infer rather surprising things. Our most intimate data, controlled by those whose interests are not aligned with ours, coupled with much more powerful analysis programs, could lead to mass discrimination, suppression, and a general loss of freedom.

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A New Model for Internet Businesses

Privacy and targeted advertising are fundamentally incompatible concepts. To protect privacy in the Internet era, we must transition away from the surveillance capitalism business model. At Proton Mail, this is exactly what we are doing. Because we cannot read your encrypted emails, we will never send you targeted advertisements. Instead, Proton Mail operates on a subscription model and generates revenue from users who want premium accounts with additional storage and special features. We also believe everyone deserves the right to privacy so we will always have free accounts equipped with all our security and privacy features.

Our only customers are you, the users, so we will always put your interests above everything else. This is how we believe a truly responsible web service should be run. With your support, we can show the world that this is a viable alternative and in the process, encourage more online businesses to adopt a model that protects privacy.

To learn more, you can also watch our TED Talk on privacy and technology(new window).

Over 10 million people are now using Proton Mail to secure their email communications. You can join our community here: proton.me/community(new window)
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To support Proton Mail, please consider upgrading to a paid plan(new window).

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Andy Yen

Andy is the founder and CEO of Proton. He is a long-time advocate for privacy rights and has spoken at TED, Web Summit, and the United Nations about online privacy issues. Previously, Andy was a research scientist at CERN and has a PhD in particle physics from Harvard University.

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