Preserving Privacy In The Surveillance Economy with Andy Yen, CEO of Proton

Preserving Privacy In The Surveillance Economy with Andy Yen, CEO of Proton

Privacy has become a precious commodity. It is often at odds with the pervasive nature of surveillance. Tech giants and governments alike have harnessed the power of technology to gain unprecedented access to personal data, raising concerns about individual privacy and the health of democratic societies.

To examine this complex issue, I sat down with Andy Yen, the Co-founder and CEO of Proton, a privacy-focused company behind Proton Mail, to discuss the implications of the surveillance society and the urgent need for safeguarding user privacy.

Transcript

Hessie Jones

Hi everyone. I’m Hessie Jones. Welcome to Tech Uncensored. We are in day three of collision and I’m here speaking to Andy Yeng, who is the Co founder and CEO of Proton, the privacy focused company behind ProtonMail. Nice to see you here, Andy.

 

Andy Yeng

Yes, thanks for having me. It’s really a pleasure to be here and to speak with you today.

 

Hessie Jones

Awesome privacy is one of my favorite topics, so I think this is going to be a fun conversation. So I see Proton in this in much the same light as DuckDuckGo, so you’re riding a distant second to Google search. Gmail, but you’re offering a radically different model that actually puts users first. Tell us about ProtonMail Proton in general, and why you think what you’re doing is vital to the future of privacy.

 

Andy Yeng

Well, I think the Internet today has a vision that’s been dominated by companies like, you know, Google and Facebook. And their philosophy is simply that the way the Internet should work should be, ‘we give you services for free and you give an exchange your most valuable, intimate private information, which we are going to use however we see fit to make the maximum amount of money, and I think that model works great for them. They have trillion-dollar market caps as a result, right? But it’s sort of, to put it bluntly, a bad deal for everybody else in the world. And what Proton is trying to do is offer a maybe a different social contract to the average Internet user. You know when you use a service like ProtonMail or like DuckDuckGo, what is implicit in here is we respect your privacy, so your data belongs to you. We’re not going to abuse how we use that data, and we enforce that through end to end encryption. So it’s not just a promise, but it’s actually a mathematical guarantee. The downside of that is that actually instead of us giving a service for free, you may actually pay. And of course, not everybody pays. Proton is a, you know, it’s a freemium business model. 99% of users don’t pay us, but 1% business users. One more features may end up paying us and that’s kind of how our model is different and in the end. It is maybe not so different after all, because you think of Google services. It’s free, but it’s not really free right? When you use Google, you are paying. In fact, you’re just paying as something that is different, something maybe more intimate, more sensitive. It’s something you cannot actually take back.

Hessie Jones

I don’t think people realize how much information they’re giving away and how much Google is actually scraping from their personal accounts in order to contextualize who they are as individuals. Let’s move on to your work and antitrust discussions and two bills that have come out of Congress. We understand Facebook, or sorry ,Meta, Amazon, FaAANG, you know the big tech companies–they continue to persist if they continue to persist in the way they’re operating, innovation is going to suffer. So explain your role in these antitrust cases and why you think it’s vital from a competitive perspective.

 

Andy Yeng

Well, what has happened in tech in the past two decades is there’s been a complete lack of regulation. And this, lack a regulation, has essentially created conditions for massive companies could dominate the entire space, with practices are fairly anti-competitive and in such a scenario sorry, there’s actually no way for any third parties to compete because if Google controls how you’re discovered, how you’re distributed and even the platforms in which services are provided on then. If they don’t play fair, there’s nothing you can do. So, to kind of give an example today Google could decide on a whim to kick any application off of the Play Store, and then it would not be available on Android devices anymore. And there is nothing you can do legally actually to prevent that. So they have this unchecked control, but Android today is maybe 67%, 80% of market. So, you cannot be at that level of scale and simply not have any rules and regulations that you have to abide by because it doesn’t create a level playing field for other people to actually compete. And This is why, you know, we view policy matters around internal competition as absolutely essential, because without competition, you actually can never solve the privacy problem.

 

Hessie Jones

Thank you. So I want to delve a little bit more deeply into that, because I think what what you’re also indicating is that as long as big tech continues to persist, there’s going to be data that they control and the data that they can also aggregate from very many, many sources and. And Shoshana Zuboff, I’m sure you know, has talked about like the surveillance economy. And I pulled a couple of examples from some recent articles that talk about some instances of what the surveillance society looks like. “There is this warrantless pole camera surveillance program that’s run by police, where they could inadvertently or on purpose, institute camera surveillance on poles around neighborhoods, which which  belies a person’s 4th Amendment rights. And then you have a company called Flock who does mass surveillance license plate readers. And that is going to happen, regardless, without consent. So how does a company like yours work in a surveillance-ridden economy. And how do other companies need to change the way they’re operating to minimize that threat?

 

Andy Yeng

These are actually very good examples. And to put it in context, if we look at it from a historical standpoint, you know, East Germany was the classical police state and in East Germany they had 1/6 of the population conducting surveillance on the other five sixths, right, using human methods. The scary thing is in today’s world, with advances in technology, you don’t even need that anymore, right? You don’t need to have 1/6 of the population cooperating with you to control the other 5/6 because Google, Facebook, these big companies, and you know tech advancements–they allow you to reach that level of surveillance at a fraction of the cost at a fashion of the east. You know, I would say that if you compare what the Stasi knows on the average East German citizen compared to what Google knows the average person, Google actually knows more. So inadvertently, we have entered kind of an ecosystem in a world for surveillance is more widespread than any other point previously in human history. And the question becomes, what can you do about it righ?. I think of course we can fight in courts and we should fight in court. I think the work that the ACLU has done to try to stop some of these, you know, things from happening is extremely vital. But it’s really at the end of the day, in a capitalist society, a business model choice. And if the financial incentives are aligned towards surveillance capitalism. And, you know, abusing privacy then it’s very hard to change that system. And I can give you an example with Apple. Apple puts it out that they’re the privacy company. But Apple also runs the App Store, which controls and monopolizes app distribution on iOS devices. And how does Apple handle App Store policies? Well, if you’re doing subscriptions as your as your business model, which Proton has to because we’re not an advertising company, we need to pay 30% of our revenue. This is not profit. This is not margins, it’s top line revenue to Apple. And do you know what Facebook pays to Apple for kind of their, you know, billion or trillion dollar applications in the App Store? Facebook pays zero. Facebook pays zero because they don’t monetize your subscriptions; they actually monetize their advertising and surveillance capitalism. So if you’re an app developer anywhere in the world seeking to build an application in the App Store or even the Play Store, because Google’s policies are exactly the same–and you’re confronted with the choice. I can either give 30% my revenue to these tech giants, or I can abuse user data and give up nothing. Well, there’s a strong financial incentive actually to go to surveillance capitalism. And so that’s why I think competition is so important. We discussed this earlier, right? Competition policies would prohibit, you know, Apple and Google from applying these discriminatory 30% fees. And that would then create a structural change that would change the incentives, which would then make privacy business models more able to thrive and survive. And that’s why it really is a policy matter from the op down because at the end of the day we need to create the right financial incentives because financial incentives are actually what makes market economies and capitalism, you know, work and it is the government’s role because what we’re seeing here in this situation is a failure of capitalism, right? If capitalism has entrenched essentially, an outcome that is not good for society and that’s why you know, the only way to do that is actually regulation to come in. This is why you have regulation on, you know, clean air regulation on food safety because without that it’s always more profitable to pollute and to poison people, right?

 

Hessie Jones

Yeah, absolutely. So at least we see the government coming in now. There are calls to pause AI because of the harms that we’re. Seeing today and. From that perspective, maybe it’s good, but at the same time, we also know that generative AI and what it it eventually will be, is not necessarily always positive for the end user, and even for the small business person, because we’re continuously, I guess centralizing some of this technology as well. So where does? Where do you think ProtonMail fits from a generative AI perspective, and what do you guys need to do to evolve within this new type of technology?

 

Andy Yeng

Yeah, AI is a very interesting topic because people view it as a disruption. There’s all these stories on the press about how AI is going to disrupt Google for the first time in two decades, right? But if you think about AI at it’s core, there’s two components #1 you need massive amounts of data because of models. The data and #2 you need massive number of users and human interactions to train the AI and who has the most data and the most users actually is Google. So, the outcome of AI might be to actually entrench and further consolidate the power of these big tech companies. And that’s why, you know, some people say AI is a chance disruption but. My view is actually it probably entrenches the status quo and that’s what makes it kind of worrisome. Now what I view as relatively positive is if you look at how long it took, you know, let’s say, the governments to regulate marketplaces in the digital economy, like app stores, well, actually, they’ve been around for 20 years and they still are not regulated, right? AI has maybe only come onto the scene in the public way for less than a year, and already governments are trying to act, so It may be more, let’s say hopeful this time because instead of being tw decades late to the game, we might see more practical action later. You know earlier on and that could then steer things in a better direction, but it’s always very tricky to regulate and you know on Proton side, of course we’re not a data-driven company, we’re not going to use massive amounts of data to you know leverage AI models. But at the same time, there are also ways to, you know, use AI to improve security. And you know so we will see some applications, but then in the privacy preserving way that is aligned with our you know values. In our business model.

 

Hessie Jones

OK, so let’s talk about some of the services that you have. So what people many people may not know is that Proton only also has a VPN service, and this is one of the I guess one of the most used privacy tools that you have that’s being used in Russia and Iran and Turkey and many other locations. So tell us more about, you know, this specific service, the encrypted services and as privacy becomes more of a concern even in these regions and many other places where privacy becomes more of an issue.

 

Andy Yeng

In Europe here in Canada and also in the States, we tend to take privacy for granted. We think it’s not such a big issue because, we’ve ways sort of has kind of our freedoms right. But if you look broadly across the world today: over 70% of the population is living under a regime that is not free and that actually is just increasing over time. I would say, you know, dictatorships tend to increase over time. The biggest technology makes it easier to maintain them and the VPN product is very interesting case study in this. Because, you know, last year when the war in Ukraine started, Russia shut down its Internet, shut down its, you know, free speech. Shut down any dissent that was possible and Society kind of gets locked down. And in Russia, if you want to find the truth and get actual information of what’s going on in the world, you have to use the VPN. It was your only window to get out to the free Internet and we saw the same situation happening in Iran when the protest started in the fall of last year and in both cases, you know, millions of people came to put on VPN and at one point, we were actually managing a significant fraction of Russia’s Internet traffic from people trying to get out to the outside and see what’s going on in the world, and I think this is extremely important because without these tools being present, you can never really have change from within Russia if everything they see is propaganda. So it’s absolutely essential to get people information so they can see what is going on. And VPN is an essential tool to do that and this is why you know we’ve invested heavily in that because it’s very much aligned with Protons, a human right mission. It’s not easy, of course. It’s a small company. Into resources against the resources of an entire state arrayed against you. So it’s not really a fair fight, but I think it’s a fight that’s essential to win. And we see this everywhere. In fact, you know today when there’s a coup or some sort of, you know, situation happening in any place in the world, whether it’s Africa, South America–every single time democracy is under attack, it correlates directly to increasing use of approval services. And I think that’s why it really proves that privacy and you know. Online freedom services. This is really at the forefront of democracy in the 21st century.

 

Hessie Jones

Thank you. I think that’s absolutely right. And like from your perspective, I know you’re an underdog. I know DuckDuckGo is an underdog. I think these very cases that you talked about are going to be the things that are going to catapult the increased awareness for privacy and the demand for privacy. So Andy, thank you for joining me today and I appreciate the time.

 

Andy Yeng

Thank you for having me.

 

Hessie Jones

And we’ll be back.

Host Information
Hessie Jones

Hessie Jones is an Author, Strategist, Investor and Data Privacy Practitioner, advocating for human-centred AI, education and the ethical distribution of AI in this era of transformation. 

She currently serves as the Innovations Manager at Altitude Accelerator. She provides the necessary support for Altitude Accelerator’s programs including Incubator and Investor Readiness. She will be the liaison among key stakeholders to provide operational support and ultimately drive founder success. 

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