ProtonMail has grown in popularity so much that its name is more or less synonymous with encrypted email these days. This rise in popularity is understandable and justified, but too many people just assume that they are untraceable when using ProtonMail. But we should never be too comfortable, and before paying for it, we should ask ourselves, can ProtonMail be traced?
ProtonMail emails are genuinely end-to-end encrypted when sending emails to other ProtonMail users, but emails to other email services are not necessarily encrypted. ProtonMail also logs your IP address on their servers, and your ISP can see that you are accessing ProtonMail, unless you use a VPN.
There are various interpretations of the word “traced.” In this context, it refers to other people being able to track you down. Though it is theoretically possible to trace ProtonMail, you have to ask yourself if it makes a difference and what to do about it if it does. We will now look more closely at how ProtonMail can be traced and how to stop tracing entirely when you’re using ProtonMail.
How Can ProtonMail Be Traced?
Understanding how ProtonMail can be traced requires a sense of what ProtonMail does. It is an end-to-end encrypted email service. This means that when you send an email from a ProtonMail account, it is encrypted in every step of the mail sending process.
Other email services usually encrypt emails while they are in transit, but emails are not encrypted while they are on the sending or receiving servers or user devices. ProtonMail does things differently. Your email is encrypted everywhere, whether it’s in transit, on a server, or a user device. Only someone with the necessary keys can read the email message or conversation.
The problem here is that ProtonMail has no control over the emails that you send once it leaves its servers. If you send an email from ProtonMail to a Gmail account, for example, the email will be encrypted until it reaches Gmail’s servers, where it will be stored in an unencrypted format as per Gmail’s standards. At this point, all your details are visible and can be used to trace you.
The next level of weakness is the recipient. In the end, a lot of the security and privacy of your conversation are dependent on the person you’re sending the message to. If they are not careful with it, the emails can easily be accessed, and tracing them back to you will be barely an inconvenience.
The third potential point where ProtonMail can be traced is in the fact that ProtonMail stores your IP address on their servers. This was not always the case, but they now maintain that they need to store metadata like an IP address to route emails reliably. So access to ProtonMail’s access logs, either by court order or illegal access, will also provide access to data like your IP address.
It is possible to use any of these weaknesses to trace you, even if you’re using ProtonMail. That’s why it’s essential never just to assume that your conversations are private, even if you’re using one of the most highly-rated email encryption platforms on earth. But this is an excellent time to ask, does it truly matter if someone can trace ProtonMail?
Does It Truly Matter If ProtonMail Can Be Traced?
It’s a good thing to be concerned about our privacy, but it’s also easy to become overly paranoid, especially when watching YouTube videos about conspiracy theories. Most of us are not enemies of the state. People in general just want to live their lives. Yes, our emails may be traced or monitored for “targeted marketing” purposes, but for most of us, that’s the worst part of it.
Add to that the fact that your emails are still encrypted, which means that your IP address is about the only valuable thing that someone might be able to gain from tracing your ProtonMail conversations. For 99% of the western world population, that is good enough; we really don’t need anything more than that.
But people in compromising situations, like journalists, activists, or people living in authoritarian states, may have reason to be concerned. The wrong information leaking out could have disastrous, perhaps even life-threatening, consequences.
So deciding if you should be concerned about ProtonMail tracing is really up to you. You know your situation and circumstances, and if you are indeed a worthy target for someone to spend their time and money on.
How To Avoid ProtonMail Tracing
Taking into consideration the three ways that your emails can be traced even if you’re using ProtonMail, there are two simple ways to protect yourself and keep your data, like your IP address, safe:
Use A VPN When Accessing ProtonMail
For a moment, let’s assume that someone is tracking you and monitoring your online activity. If you’re using ProtonMail and using it properly, as we will see soon, they won’t be able to see what you wrote in your conversations on ProtonMail. But they will be able to get information about the times you logged into ProtonMail and sent or received emails based on your IP address.
A VPN will allow you to avoid this. Proton Technologies even offers its own VPN, which is often available at a discount to ProtonMail users. Using a VPN will effectively hide your IP address and your actual location from ProtonMail’s own servers, making you untraceable. However, some VPNs still keep logs of your IP address, so you may want to use Tor for this purpose instead.
Encrypt ProtonMail Messages To Other Servers
You can set ProtonMail always to use end-to-end encryption, even when sending emails to users of other services. This can be a pain for the recipient since the email will never actually arrive in their inbox; they will simply get a link that will take them to the message on ProtonMail’s server. They can access the message using a password that you will have to send them in some other way.
This method at least ensures that anyone who’s trying to trace you when you’re using ProtonMail, won’t have access to any of the information you’re communicating. You can even set the message to self-destruct after a certain amount of time, and that way, you can guarantee that your conversation stays private.
ProtonMail has earned its reputation for encrypted email by constantly improving its offering and services. Where users complained, ProtonMail improved. It is complicated to trace ProtonMail, and even if it can be done, there is very little that anyone can gain from it. In most cases, it just won’t be worth the effort. For all the other cases, a little extra effort from you will make all the difference.