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Is universal end-to-end encrypted email possible (or even desirable)?

Maria Korolov | Sept. 19, 2017
End-to-end email encryption is getting more attention as security and compliance concerns mount, but practical use cases are rapidly being eaten away by other technologies.

The fear that an email provider can access messages is what's driving some corporate users to fully encrypted platforms, confirmed Andy Yen, founder and CEO at ProtonMail, which is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. ProtonMail is one of the largest end-to-end encrypted email providers. The company claims to have more than 20,000 paying customers, mostly small and medium-sized businesses, and more than 3 million users total.

It's a cloud-based service that can be accessed via a browser or a mobile app, but the actual encryption and decryption happens on the client device. That means that ProtonMail itself cannot read the emails, and won't be able to turn them over to anyone even if ordered by the courts.

Encryption is also part of GDPR compliance, the General Data Protection Regulation that goes into effect in Europe next year, and in the medical industry, it is required for HIPAA compliance. "Health care is our biggest segment on the enterprise side," Yen says.

As with other platforms, if the recipient is not a ProtonMail user, they'll get emailed a link instead, which they can use to access the secure online services. "The encryption is not automatic, and you have to exchange a password," Yen added. "Sometimes banks will send passwords in the post, or in-person, or in a separate email. We've seen all the different possibilities."

Since ProtonMail itself can't read the messages, the email platform doesn't offer all the bells and whistles of a full-featured cloud email client. For example, users can't search the body of the messages, just the subject line, sender, recipient, and time of the message.

Other enterprise platforms focus on desktop clients, which allow more flexibility. That includes Symantec Corp., which says it has "hundreds" of enterprise customers for its end-to-end email encryption product. Users can access the platform on mobile devices, via Web browser, and via an add-on for Outlook. "For people who have email encryption on their desktop clients, they can search through their emails on their own desktops," says Kathy Kriese, principal product manager at Symantec.

That's not the case for the externally-facing gateway email product, she added. “That does not really allow for people to do searching easily," she says. "They would have to look message by message. Yes, that can be challenging, but it tends to be lower-volume communications, anyway."

Another vendor that supports Outlook desktop clients is Zix Corp., which claims to have 19,000 customers and 3.3 million users. ZixMail offers full end-to-end encryption with both the recipient and sender using the same platform, or a cloud portal when the recipient is not a customer. In addition, Zix offers filters so that companies can automatically have some emails encrypted end-to-end and the rest sent normally.


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