It’s been nagging me for a while, that something’s possibly wrong with my online presence and the services I had been using. Particularly I had been a big Google fan when it emerged. It was really cool to have a GMail account at the time, as an alternative to one of those providers in the dot-com boom era. I still think Google do a great job and their GMail service is really great and secure (yes, secure). Also I can boast a name.surname GMail account which is actually not possible to get these days (I got it when GMail was getting popular). The problem with it is privacy.

Let’s face it–Google is an advertising company. They make money from selling ads (actually auctioning them). My data is their food. I’m not even after the fact that they are willing to give away my data to state agencies, as if that mattered in my case, I’d have bigger problems. I don’t quite believe in ultimately “safe” email, as whether it’s PGP or any other means of protecting it, someone will get to it if they are really after me (be it a flaw in the software, service provider’s mistake, my peer’s mistake or my own mistake). So what really concerns me is blatant access to my email and information about me which is being profiled and sold.

It’s a fair deal: Google provides me a service “for free” (for no money) but I pay with my privacy by letting them peek. There’s no big conspiracy here. What’s somewhat worrying though is that some users are not aware of the “price” they are paying, or they do not care. Not my problem.

Over the time, I’ve been scouring websites like Restore Privacy or Privacy Tools. Also books by Snowden, Mitnick and the like made it even more apparent to me that I needed a switch.

Restoring privacy

This post is the first one in a series I have in mind. I’m not a privacy expert, and yet where I have an opinion, I still try to remain pragmatic. There are a lot of opinions on which email provider to choose. I’ve been through tens of reviews. The difficulty: I had to make my own choice after realising what I really wanted or needed.

This is yet another opinion which may not be the right choice for everyone.

Domain

One thing I’m quite certain about is that sticking with any email provider’s domain is not ideal. My ambition is to close my GMail account at some point in a (distant) future, but it’ll take time and effort to update my account information I’d given out.

What I’ve learned the hard way is that having my own domain is the first step. I’m with njal.la and it works great for me. They seem to have all features, many of which I don’t even know what they are for. Recently for example I found it quite useful to be able to set CAA record (after I generated Let’s Encrypt certificates for one of my websites) and realised they have a nice dynamic DNS feature. For paranoid they can be accessed on the Tor network: http://njalladnspotetti.onion (I use this ability for fun rather than for privacy).

So in the end, if I change my mind about the email provided (which has happened to me a number of times), it’s at least less painful to not having to update my email address and only having to migrate existing messages.

Email providers

There’s a number of factors to consider here: whether the storage is encrypted, the provider’s jurisdiction, email clients (applications), webmail, custom domain support, multiple address support etc.

I started off paranoid and tried ProtonMail. Everything encrypted, based in Switzerland etc. What I disliked about it though is that I had to either use their webmail (which somewhat annoyed me) or a bridge (daemon) to access my inbox with IMAP/SMTP (if I chose to use a particular email client).

I also tried Disroot and eventually Tutanota. With the latter one I still have a spare account, just in case I turn to it again. Tutanota takes things even further (based in Germany): one can use either their webmail or their native client as they want to guarantee nothing unencrypted is ever transferred. They also say that PGP is not the right choice and provide end-to-end encryption by default (including meta-data). The only problem with that is that my peers would also need to be with Tutanota, or I should send them password-protected messages. And that would likely be only my closest circle as the majority of the world which I need to contact, does not use Tutanota now nor in any near future.

In the end I realised that email encryption is not the top priority for me as the majority of my contacts would not use encryption. If I really need extra protection, PGP seems fair enough. The default I wanted for my email was to keep my email from preying eyes.

This is how I ended up with Migadu. I’m not going to review it here as anyone can go and check their website. I can summarise here that for mere $4/month I can have:

  • unlimited email domains
  • unlimited addresses
  • unlimited storage
  • unlimited aliases
  • proper IMAP/SMTP support
  • simplicity

Sure, there are some conditions to use “unlimited” features reasonably but I don’t feel I’d ever need an “unreasonable” use of the service. They do not encrypt stored data but they are based in Switzerland and that’s fair enough for me. First time around, the setup may look somewhat unusual but in the end it’s quite straightforward. The only trap was to find out that with simplicity comes responsibility and I had to set up catch-all rules myself (for example to have addresses like address+whatever@mydomain.tld reach my inbox). I had very occasional glitches: once I could not sign in, reported it and apparently they were doing some maintenance; the other time emails I knew were sent, arrived on the next day. But there’s never a situation an email is lost (undelivered). At least that’s the promise.

Summary

Choosing an email provider is not an easy task. There’s an effort required to find out what is really needed. For me, there’s always a balance I need to seek but ultimately simplicity is a good indicator. And it’s fair enough for me if my emails are simply not looked into.

In the next post I’m planning to share my experience of another fundamental issue: handling passwords.

Comments

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