More people are searching for an inbox that protects their privacy

Illustration of searching for privacy-focused email services.

The number of Google searches in all languages for privacy-focused Gmail alternatives (e.g., “private email” or “encrypted email”) increased 39 percent worldwide between May 2019 and April 2020. 

This surge in interest is a promising sign that online privacy is starting to become a priority for people. It also indicates that a broad swath of the population understands that a secure email service is crucial to preserving online privacy. ProtonMail is the world’s largest encrypted email provider and one of the most popular Gmail alternatives. 

There are several potential reasons users are investigating email privacy, including a loss of trust in national governments, the ever-increasing number of data breaches, and the passage of data privacy legislation, just to name a few.

Below you’ll see charts showing how the search volume has changed over time, as well as more details about what encrypted email does and why more people need it. Unless stated otherwise, the statistics in this article are based on Google Ads Keyword Planner data.

The move toward privacy is global

The appetite for better privacy is widespread and growing. If you narrow the Google search results to just English, global searches for email services that protect privacy are up 41 percent. This is likely because countries like the US have a poor record protecting privacy.

In Australia, searches for privacy-focused Gmail alternatives are up 52 percent. This increased interest in a secure inbox is likely motivated, at least partially, by the passage of the anti-encryption Assistance and Access Bill at the end of 2018.

In the United States, these searches are up 59 percent. This number is not surprising given that most Americans do not trust their government to protect their privacy rights (more on that below). The US government has also made repeated calls to break encryption, which only emphasizes its desire to have access to all data.

One of the largest increases was seen in India, where these privacy-related searches are 155 percent higher. The fact that the percentage of Indians with Internet access continues to rise and that 2018 was the worst year on record for data breaches by Indian companies likely contributed to this increased interest in online privacy. 

The country that registered the highest increase (at least in our study) was Lithuania. Google searches for privacy-focused Gmail alternatives are up 172 percent among Lithuanians. Their proximity to Russia, which has a history of hacking its infrastructure, might explain Lithuanians’ interest in private email. 

These national issues help explain part of the uptick, but there are also powerful cultural trends pushing more people around the world to take back their digital privacy.

Lack of trust in national governments

Ever since the Snowden revelations exposed the NSA’s mass surveillance program, Americans (and citizens worldwide) have not trusted the US government to respect their privacy. In a 2019 Ipsos public affairs poll, 80 percent of Americans said their government’s actions are at least somewhat responsible for their increasing concerns over online privacy. 

That same poll showed it’s not just Americans: People around the world are becoming more suspicious of their governments. It might be expected that 77 percent of Russians think their government is undermining their privacy, but this concern is shared by the citizens of democracies as well.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a significant overlap between the countries with the largest increases in searches for privacy-focused Gmail alternatives and the ones listed here.

Gmail is not private — not even in confidential mode

Gmail is the world’s most popular email service, but privacy scandals have plagued it since it entered beta in 2004. Five days after Gmail began its limited beta release, 31 civil liberties organizations wrote an open letter saying Google should stop scanning all its users’ messages for ad placement or suspend Gmail entirely. Google eventually did stop scanning its users’ inboxes, but not until 2017.

Privacy issues persist with Gmail. It has access to all the messages in your inbox, even messages sent using its so-called “confidential mode,” which means the company can read them or hand them over to law enforcement

Data breaches and privacy scandals

More companies are leaking private and sensitive data than ever before, making it harder for users to trust any business. According to a report by the Identity Theft Resource Center, the number of data breaches was up 17 percent in 2019. 

There were also several privacy scandals this year, from Zoom sharing its users’ data with Facebook without notifying its users to the Verifications.io data breach that exposed 809 million business and personal records. Each time people have their personal information exposed in a data breach or privacy scandal, it makes them more likely to seek out companies that take added precautions, such as end-to-end encryption, to secure their privacy.

Data protection legislation requires services that protect user data

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) entered into force on May 25, 2018. The GDPR also inspired similar legislation, such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act and Brazil’s General Data Protection Law. These new laws force companies to implement technical safeguards, including end-to-end encryption, wherever possible to protect user data. Although non-private email services like Gmail are technically compliant with these rules, strong encryption can help businesses limit their liability in the event of a breach.

Privacy laws also require companies to get user consent before they can collect personal data unless certain other requirements were met. Seeing all these permission requests, along with the continuous tick of tech companies getting GDPR fines for data protection violations, has likely foregrounded privacy in the minds of people.

What does encrypted email mean?

The term “encrypted email” can be slightly confusing. While virtually every email service encrypts messages in transit, most email services have the ability to access the messages they are storing. However, an email service can use end-to-end encryption, which is when a message is encrypted on the sender’s device and is not decrypted until it reaches the recipient’s device. This type of encryption, which prevents anyone besides the sender and recipient from accessing a message, is what “encrypted email” refers to.

What is the best alternative to Gmail?

ProtonMail is an easy-to-use, reliable Gmail alternative that views personal data as something to protect, not exploit. We designed our service from the ground up to protect user privacy and provide strong technical protections.

Gmail fails to protect its users’ data because its primary focus is on data collection, not data protection. An email service that relies on ad placement for its revenue cannot put the necessary protections in place, like end-to-end encryption, because that would prevent it from accessing the data it needs to target you more precisely with ads.

ProtonMail’s subscription business model is based on providing privacy and security to our users. Our users subscribe to paid plans that offer extra features. This is our only source of revenue. We do not need to sell ads. This means that not only is it impossible for us to read your messages because we use end-to-end encryption and zero-access encryption, but it is entirely unnecessary. Our users pay us to keep their personal data private. We have no incentive to betray that trust. 

To build an Internet that provides security, privacy, and freedom for everyone is an immense task. It cannot be done without widespread calls for something better. Data like this surge in demand for privacy-focused Gmail alternatives gives us hope that we are on the right track.

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. Thank you for your support.

About the Author

Richie Koch

Prior to joining Proton, Richie spent several years working on tech solutions in the developing world. He joined the Proton team to advance the rights of online privacy and freedom.

 

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2 comments on “More people are searching for an inbox that protects their privacy

  • Protonmail staff can read contyacts, senders, receivers and email topics as much as government services can. Times emails are sent, possibly more (“metadata”). This should be changed to a system that is verification based: enter an e-mail address to see whether the account has sent an email to it, enter a time to see whether an email was sent at that time. Make it time+contact combination query-only to prevent bulk querying.
    I experienced the privacy incursion first hand when my account was blocked because Microsoft Spam filters saw my legitimate emails as spam. Protonmail asked me for contacts, last mail topics etc.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your feedback. Yes, depending on your needs, these are important considerations. No communication system is 100% secure and for all its convenience email does have well-known limitations.

      Reply