February 25, 2014 Leave a comment
Since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began divulging information on how vulnerable our personal digital data is – and how much of it security organizations have been helping themselves to – the average web surfer has begun to think a bit more cynically about cyber security. That newfound suspicion creates a headache and a PR-fiasco for the NSA but opens doors for entrepreneurs in the world of online privacy.
Two such entrepreneurs are brothers Will and John Ackerly. The Ackerlys and their startup venture, Washington D.C.-based Vitru, are two weeks into the launch of a product that lets internet users encrypt any and all of their emails for free. Unlike competitors, the service acts as an add-on to your web browser and does not require the email recipient to have signed up for the service. That feature alone makes Virtu notable.
What’s different from what a lot of encrypted communication tools is the integration of their encryption technology directly into Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook.com. They have created a simple system that required little technical know-how.
There is no shortage of privacy and security products out there but most users, while concerned about the privacy of their personal information, have not taken action because they don’t know where to go.
Here’s how it works:
Download Virtru as a Firefox add-on and a mobile app. On Firefox, each new email contains a small unobtrusive switch on the top right corner of the message window which turns encryption on (yes, it is opt in). Press “send” and Virtru encrypts the contents on your device with standard AES 256, then sends it to the recipient but separates the encryption key from the message. The recipient does not need to have downloaded Virtru to get the key but does need to confirm his or her identity by email address. Virtru holds the key to that decryption process and won’t fork it over without verification. They also have a firewall that makes sure that every keystroke that you type inside the compose window never gets to the server. Normally every single keystroke is recorded and sent to Google servers when using Gmail.
On smartphone, the user can send out emails via the Virtru mail app that links to, say a Gmail app but only after verifying your identity on the device. Other free services include the ability to control whether your recipient can forward your message and the power to revoke access to the message after a chosen period of time.
Email encryption is free (“and it will always be free,” according to the company) but they have formulated a revenue model consisting of soon-to-come paid features like attachment security, domain-level enterprise data management platforms, as well as the licensing of their technology to organizations that want to manage their own security keys. The fees themselves have yet to be determined but will be announced in the second quarter.
So far Virtru has launched its email privacy product as an add-on to Chrome, Firefox and iOS. In the coming weeks compatibility will spread to Internet Explorer, Safari and Android, as well as plugins for Outlook and Mac Mail.