Why ProtonMail is more secure than Gmail

protonmail vs gmail security

ProtonMail is an encrypted email service that takes a radically different approach to email security. Find out how ProtonMail security compares to Gmail security.

In 2014, ProtonMail became the world’s first email service to protect data with end-to-end encryption, and today is the world’s most popular secure email service with millions of users worldwide. ProtonMail’s technology is often misunderstood by tech writers (and sometimes incorrectly represented in the press), so this article aims to provide a clear description of how ProtonMail’s technology is different from Gmail, and what makes ProtonMail more secure.

Only you can read your emails

ProtonMail’s encryption means that nobody but you can read the messages in your mailbox. In fact, not even ProtonMail has the ability to read your messages. We believe that your private communications should be exactly that: private. On the other hand, Gmail can and does read every single one of your emails. If you are not comfortable giving Google unlimited access to all of your intimate communications, then ProtonMail’s approach to data privacy provides more security.

Improved security in the event of a data breach

ProtonMail uses Zero Knowledge Encryption, which means it is technically impossible for us to decrypt user messages. Zero Knowledge Encryption applies to all messages in your mailbox, even messages which did not come from other ProtonMail users.

This provides stronger security compared to Gmail because even if ProtonMail were somehow breached, user messages remain secure because ProtonMail only stores encrypted messages. In other words, if an attacker steals emails from ProtonMail, the attacker would not have the ability to decrypt them, as even ProtonMail cannot decrypt them. The use of Zero Knowledge Encryption therefore adds a strong layer of resiliency against catastrophic data breaches.

No tracking and logging

Google records literally every action done by its users. This includes your IP address, every search that you do, which emails you open, which websites you visit, and much more. ProtonMail takes the opposite approach and by default, does not monitor or record user activity, not even IP addresses.

Encryption for messages in transit

In addition to the security of emails at rest, one also needs to consider the security of emails in transit. Both ProtonMail and Gmail provide extra protection by using TLS encryption whenever possible when communicating with external email providers. However, ProtonMail goes one step further by also supporting end-to-end encryption.

In simple terms, end-to-end encryption means that messages are encrypted on the sender’s device (before it even leaves their computer or mobile phone), and can only be decrypted by the recipient on their device. This means that no third party which transmits or intercepts the email between the sender and recipient (i.e. internet service providers, the NSA, or even ProtonMail as the mail server operator) can decrypt and view the message.

This powerful protection is possible because ProtonMail has PGP email encryption built-in. End-to-end encryption is done automatically without user interaction whenever messages are exchanged between ProtonMail users. For an enterprise using ProtonMail for their email hosting, this means all communications between employees are automatically protected with end-to-end encryption. ProtonMail can also support sending/receiving end-to-end encrypted messages with recipients who are not using ProtonMail. The use of end-to-end encryption makes ProtonMail a better choice for security conscious individuals and organizations.

Smaller attack surface

ProtonMail only provides email and VPN services, so your Proton account is not connected to hundreds of other services. Compared to Google, ProtonMail is a much smaller target, and there is less risk that a vulnerability in another service breaches your email account.

One might argue that Gmail is more secure because it is a gigantic company with more engineers. However, there is ample evidence that demonstrates that security is not correlated to company size. In fact, large companies often are the most vulnerable due to larger attack surfaces, Yahoo and Equifax being two recent examples. There is no such thing as 100% security and history has shown that any system can be breached. ProtonMail’s unique ability to protect user data even in the event of a breach is a valuable benefit.

Strong authentication

ProtonMail uses Secure Remote Password in order to protect user credentials. This makes it difficult to conduct a brute force attack to obtain user credentials, even if the attacker has control over the victim’s network. Both Gmail and ProtonMail support two factor authentication (2FA), which provides an additional layer of security by requiring that an unique code be entered on each login (the code is usually generated on a separate hardware device). However, ProtonMail goes a step further by only using strong 2FA methods, and disallowing weaker methods such as 2FA over SMS.

Protected by Swiss and European privacy laws

ProtonMail stores user data exclusively in European countries with strong privacy protections such as Switzerland. This means that unlike Gmail, ProtonMail does not fall under the jurisdiction of intrusive US laws (such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), and cannot be coerced into working for the NSA. With ProtonMail, you can be certain that your data always remains in Europe, in full compliance with EU privacy regulations. ProtonMail’s approach makes us compliant with Article 25 of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which mandates that services adhere to the principle of Privacy by Design.

Zero knowledge encryption means that even if a complaint is brought in a Swiss court that meet the high requirements for data disclosure, only encrypted emails could be handed over. As a Swiss company, ProtonMail cannot be forced to hand over data in cases of US or EU civil litigation. Thus, even if you don’t care about privacy, ProtonMail is still the ideal choice for businesses, journalists, activists, and individuals who are worried about the overreach of US government agencies or courts.

No conflict of interest

In addition to the technological and legal differences, ProtonMail and Gmail also have very different business practices. Whereas Gmail was created to lock users into the world’s largest and most invasive advertising platform, ProtonMail was created with the goal of protecting privacy rights and democracy in the digital age.

Google makes money by providing Gmail and other services for free in order to acquire personal data, which it then sells to advertisers. On the other hand, ProtonMail first priority is always user privacy, because our only customers are our users – not advertisers. Thus, choosing between Gmail and ProtonMail is also a personal choice: Do you want to sacrifice your privacy or instead use a service that respects privacy?

Conclusion

Both Gmail and ProtonMail provide email accounts, but that’s where the similarities end. In terms of technology, legal protection, and position on privacy rights, the two services diverge widely. If you just want an email account, either service will meet your needs. If email security, and in particular privacy is important to you, then you should consider ProtonMail as a Gmail alternative.

 

You can get a free secure email account from ProtonMail here.

We also provide a free VPN service to protect your privacy.

ProtonMail and ProtonVPN are funded by community contributions. If you would like to support our development efforts, you can upgrade to a paid plan or donate. Thank you for your support!

About the Author

Andy Yen

Andy is the Co-Founder of ProtonMail. He is a long time advocate of privacy rights and has spoken at TED, SXSW, and the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference about online privacy issues. Previously, Andy was a research scientist at CERN and has a PhD in Particle Physics from Harvard University. You can watch his TED talk online to learn more about ProtonMail's mission.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

40 comments on “Why ProtonMail is more secure than Gmail

  • All great but why do you allow weak passwords.
    Registration form accepts passwords like”tom”.

    If the recipient has a weak password, it can expose all parties involved in the conversations…
    Please force a minimum security for passwords on registration.

    Reply
    • We don’t believe in controlling user behavior. What we will do is show a password strength indicator in the UI to encourage stronger passwords.

      Reply
      • Might be nice to let a user know if the person they’re communicating with is using a weak password. What’s the point of protecting my key if my roommate has a habit of leaving his all over town unattended.

        Reply
        • Unfortunately we can’t do this because we don’t know the strength of your roommates password since we don’t know his password.

          Reply
      • Wow!

        This comment should cause an earthquake inside Google. Lots of people I know would like to import their Gmail into ProtonMail.

        The spying by the CIA, FBI and NSA, on their own U.S. civilians, will continue to create demand for privacy. The book “3 felonies a day” shows how the Feds can comb through millions of pages of laws and come up with something to threaten you with a long jail sentence. Gmail has chose wrongly in partnering with the U.S. government.

        The U.S. government will be unhappy about this migration away from Gmail, and into secure communication. If you work for the U.S. government, or Gmail, be sure to report any proposal by your employer to diminish privacy for U.S. citizens. Google and the U.S. government will likely resort to shady tactics to prevent this drive toward privacy. Report these tactics using SecureDrop (which is safe and easy). The Intercept, and many other news outlets use SecureDrop.

        Thank you, ProtonMail.

        Reply
  • I so want to use ProtonMail and leave Gmail, I really do. But until you allow a way out of ProtonMail (i.e. a way to take our email with us), ProtonMail “owns” our data, and that just isn’t right. In contrast Gmail scans our email alright but lets us free to leave the service. PS: I know you’re working on IMAP access, so this is just a friendliest nudge to get it done and released. This is all the more important for business accounts, who won’t subscribe without a reversibility procedure (and they will also want calendar integration – for accepting invites – and some directory integration)

    Reply
      • Hey I’m a plus user and I did not receive any invitation (I use both Linux and windows) and I’m also a Tester, so I’d love to test bridge. How can I try it?

        Reply
      • Excellent! I tested ProtonMail Bridge this week on macOS with Apple Mail, it works well enough for my purpose of reversibility, count me now as a happy paying subscriber. And the custom domains work like a charm. I’m out of Gmail now. Keep up the good work, you’re heroes!

        Reply
    • But once you “take your emails with you” how secure will your emails be when there are stored in plain-text on your computer?

      Reply
      • It’s your computer and you do what you want with it. You can encrypt a folder, a partition and even your entire hard drive.

        Reply
    • The free accounts are limited in features because otherwise we would not be able to exist as a company. We are a community and user supported company which means paid plans are required to keep ProtonMail operating. Thank you for understanding!

      Reply
  • “ProtonMail goes a step further by only using strong 2FA methods, and disallowing weaker methods such as 2FA over SMS.”

    True but Protonmail has no support for Yubikey and no support for FIDO U2F so, while you disallow weaker methods, you also don’t support the strongest and most secure forms of 2FA.

    Reply
  • Just a quick question I was thinking about.

    All these features, of course, are applicable to the ProtonMail web client. Does using the Android app compromise on any of the technical security features of ProtonMail?

    P.S. Besides the obvious fact that anyone who can unlock my phone can access my emails.

    Reply
    • There security features are available across all our platforms, even Android. For extra security, you can also enable PIN lock on Android to protect your emails in case somebody unlocks your phone.

      Reply
  • Protonmail is in my sense a Fake solution.

    You do not propose any standard, you do not propose anything that could be widely used, in several open source projects and deployed in every compagny worldwide.

    Your solution rely on an home made javascript base crypto that works for you and only you, and does not interoperate with any other email provider.
    This is business, and Protonmail is just there to make money

    It is absolutely not not a future proof solution that could fix a fundamental problem : email in the current state is insecure.

    If you want something really innovatibe, have a look to the side of DIME and DMTP.

    Reply
    • This is not true actually. ProtonMail uses the OpenPGP standard, and in fact, we play a key role in defining the popularizing that standard as we are the maintainers of OpenPGPjs, the world’s most popular open source PGP library for web.

      Reply
  • Since using protonmail, I have rid myself of ‘screaming’ adverts wanting to sell me anything from nudes to pills to goodness-only-knows-what-crap. I’m not interested – I’m only interested in receiving emails from the people I want to receive emails from. I used to be a Google+ user, for a short while – my goodness – couldn’t hear myself think for overbearing white-noise. All gone. Wouldn’t touch Yahoo with a barge pole now, still have a hotmail/outlook address(es) – use them as catchalls, sending mail on (forwarding) to protonmail (works a treat); I use google email as an email address in situation where I don’t want to divulge my ‘real’ email address (the protonmail one), and as soon as I get spam from one such place into gmail, that gets filtered, and the spammer gets a vacation notice (doh), and because of the large storage at gmail, I store things that have no ‘world-shattering’ privacy sensitivity and are of absolutely no interest to any snoops. But for my daily, no-nonsense, large-screen typing area, protonmail is ‘it’. But beware of sending on (forwarding) mail from gmail to protonmail. Whereas hotmail/outlook sends AFTER ditching spam, gmail sends BEFORE ditching spam. Take it as you like it – gmail forwarding sends spam to protonmail – hotmail/outlook forwarding does not. My emails feel quite safe at Fort ‘Protonmail’ Knox. THANK YOU PROTONMAIL!

    Reply
  • I signed on as a beta user with Protonmail in 2014 and, after a few test run email accounts with PM, I settled on one, paid my annual fee, I could not be happier. The number ONE security feature I love on PM is NO use of 2FA via-SMS. Thank You! I’ve been hacked by an ex-spouse (very high level, savvy Google-manager-for-his-institution-) via SMS after he jail broke my phone at a family function. Emails I read during one evening were suddenly erased the next day. Took me awhile…..With Gmail on my device, I was constantly being prompted to “re-enter your google password” for this or that feature. Why, exactly?

    Guess how many time Protonmail has asked me to re-enter my PW — in three years? Zero times. Between the weak WPA2 ISP protocol Time Warner offers (as the only game in town, btw) and Gmail’s oh-so-porous email product, I think PM is a godsend. I will gladly pay for peace of mind. No “missing” emails in three years.

    And I appreciate PM not interfering in my password usability. Just today I had to reset a Google PW (I still must use Gmail for one client, but I never give Google my cell # now). Google kept telling me my PW was “too similar” to my old PW — when I had changed 7 out of the 15 characters! Hello, Google? Thanks for the guidelines but in the end, I’ll be the judge of the viability of my own passwords.

    Keep doing what you do, Proton-CERN-Harvard people, you have a fan in the Midwest. Yes, it’s good to have flexibility to exit the PM ecosystem, but (honestly), who takes all their email “with” them?

    Reply
  • I’m still unsure about how far exactly the protection goes. If I send a mail from ProtonMail to a Gmail address, at what point does the content get revealed, given that the addressee finally fetches the mail from the Google servers where it resides.

    Reply
  • I have been using ProtonMail ever since I first heard of it and signed up to it via invitation when it came out in Beta Mode, I liked it back then and still like it even more now. It is an awesome e-mail service, I deleted all my other e-mail addresses and kept this one only because it has the best security, privacy and etc… . And now it has a new awesome VPN service too, Keep up the great work ProtonMail Team.

    😀

    Reply
    • Very, very soon we are launching encrypted address book and the contacts import/export tool in ProtonMail. You will be able to move all your contacts from any email provider like Gmail -> ProtonMail

      Reply