Free, privacy-respecting alternatives to corporate email providers like Gmail, Yahoo, and MSN/Hotmail

“Free” email services such as Gmail, Yahoo, or Microsoft (MSN, Hotmail) might not cost you anything in the sense of money, but they are certainly not free in the sense of freedom. The price you pay for using these services is a complete loss of privacy and control over your data. The use of these services enables state intelligence/police agencies to easily monitor our communications and behavior/interests, map out our social networks, and then use this information to systematically destroy radical social movements.

What’s wrong with corporate email? What are they doing with your data?

NSA slide on the PRISM program, leaked by Edward Snowden. This shows that all of the major corporate email and social networking providers are feeding data to intelligence agencies. Why trust these people with your private emails, when there are free alternatives that won't do this?
A slide from an NSA presentation on the PRISM program, leaked by Edward Snowden. All of the major corporate email and social networking providers are feeding data to intelligence agencies. Why trust these people with your private emails, when there are free alternatives that won’t willingly collaborate? (click to enlarge)

Corporations such as Google provide their email service to you for “free” so that they can collect data about you and sell it for a profit. What they are actually offering you is spyware. Google collects and analyzes the contents of your emails and “private” messages, creates lists of everyone you communicate with, and tracks your behavior as you search and surf the web (what sites you visit, how long you spend there, etc). They then store all of this information in their massive databases, compile a detailed profile of you, and sell access to this information to advertisers and other companies.

The amount of personal information that is collected by companies such as Google and Facebook is truly vast, and historically unprecedented. Consider for a moment how detailed of a psychological/behavioral profile of you can be constructed by being able to read every email you’ve sent over the past few years, having a list of everyone you’ve communicated with, viewing everything you’ve searched for on Google, what sites you’ve visited (i.e. they know what kind of things you’re reading, what videos you watch, places you go, what you like to do for fun, your medical conditions, what you purchase online, political groups/ideas you’re interested in, your sexual preferences, and countless other things that you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with a complete stranger) … And now consider that they have this kind of information about hundreds of millions of people.

Collaboration with state intelligence/police agencies

Computer network information operations slide from NSA talking about propaganda, deception, and pushing news stories via social media to manipulate the public
Leaked NSA slide that talks about their “Computer Network Information Operations” (CNIO) which use propaganda, deception, and pushing news stories via social media to manipulate the public. To effectively deceive and manipulate you, they have to get inside your head. Letting them read all of your emails and monitor your surfing behavior makes this easy.

The major problem with this is that in addition to collecting and selling your private data, these corporations also willingly hand over this information to intelligence agencies and police. This type of intelligence gathering would cost the state billions of dollars if they had to do it themselves. But now, they can have companies like Google do it for them (supported by ad revenue) for free.

Never before have governments had access to this kind of detailed behavioral/psychological profiles of the people and groups that they consider “threats”(and identifying who these threats are is also much easier, now that they can easily do things like sitting down at the computer and saying “Give me a list of all of the people in Seattle, WA who regularly read anarchist literature.”)

Governments sometimes use this information to arrest people and throw them in prison (or kill them). However in order to uphold the illusion of “democratic governance” they can only do this to the highest valued targets. What surveillance and data mining is most useful for is social control through misinformation, manipulation, distraction, and disruption. I am pointing this out because when I’m talking about email security with people, they often say things like “Well it’s not like I’m going to be stupid enough to talk about illegal activity over email!” … but that’s not the point. What is more important is that you are giving the state detailed information about your plans/strategies, your beliefs, your personal preferences, your fears, your friends, your family, your interests … and they can use this to more effectively neutralize our collective efforts at radical change through propaganda, manipulation and deception, without appearing to be as violently repressive.

Sure, FBI agents can infiltrate our groups, break into our homes and install monitoring hardware, follow us around, and disrupt our meetings. They can get information about us if they want to by a variety of means. But by using corporate email and social media and freely sharing our most intimate personal details with them over the Internet, organizing our political activities on Google Groups and Facebook Pages, we give them far more information and make it extremely cost effective for them to monitor and manipulate a much larger number of people. That is by using Google, Facebook, Yahoo, etc. we are making mass surveillance and political repression easier. We are enabling them when we should be working to make things as difficult for them as possible.

Free alternatives to corporate email

If you’re doing any type of social justice organizing, independent journalism, or anything else that might make you a target for government surveillance and repression there are several free, non-profit alternative email services that are run by organizations who respect user privacy and will not collaborate with intelligence/police agencies.

The Riseup Collective is an autonomous body based in Seattle with collective members world wide. Our purpose is to aid in the creation of a free society, a world with freedom from want and freedom of expression, a world without oppression or hierarchy, where power is shared equally. We do this by providing communication and computer resources to allies engaged in struggles against capitalism and other forms of oppression.
“The Riseup Collective is an autonomous body based in Seattle with collective members world wide. Our purpose is to aid in the creation of a free society, a world with freedom from want and freedom of expression, a world without oppression or hierarchy, where power is shared equally. We do this by providing communication and computer resources to allies engaged in struggles against capitalism and other forms of oppression.”

Personally I use Riseup.net but there are several other options including Resist.ca, Tao.ca, and Autistici/Inventati. Riseup.net is based out of Seattle, Washington, Autistici/Inventati is based out of Italy, and Resist.ca/Tao.ca are based out of Canada (but all of them provide free services to people anywhere in the world). All of these sites are anti-authoritarian communications collectives whose mission is to provide free, secure email, chat, VPN and other web services for people who are working towards radical social change.

These sites are completely funded by donations so if you use their services, and can spare a few dollars every now and then, you should donate some to keep them running. But neither of them require you to pay anything if you can’t afford to.

How to smoothly transition from your old corporate email to your new address

Using a free, open-source email program like Mozilla Thunderbird makes it easy to manage multiple email accounts, use PGP encryption, and store messages offline.
Using a free, open-source email program like Mozilla Thunderbird makes it easy to manage multiple email accounts, use PGP encryption, and store messages offline

Just like Gmail, Riseup.net and the other services mentioned above will let you access your email through your web browser. However, I’d highly recommend downloading a free, open-source email reader such as Mozilla Thunderbird (from the same folks who make the Firefox web browser). This will enable you to easily manage multiple email accounts from one place, without having to go from one website to another. There are other benefits to using a standalone email reader like Thunderbird: it will enable you to easily use PGP encryption for your emails, keep a calendar/task list,  let you download your emails and store them offline, and many other useful things.

As far as transitioning to your new email from the old one, another way that an email program will be helpful is that it will let you receive emails with one address (for instance, your old Gmail address) and then reply to that message with a different email than the one that received it. This is the easiest way to notify people about your new email address. Instead of having to send a mass email out to everyone you know saying you’ve switched over, you can just periodically check your Gmail account in your mail reader and then reply to all the messages there using your Riseup.net or Autistici account and let them know that “By the way, this is my new email address, please use it from now on” … after a few months of doing this, you will get hardly any emails at your old Gmail address.

…But don’t get lulled into a false sense of security!

Switching to a provider like Riseup.net addresses a specific security vulnerability – that of corporate email providers having access to your private communications. However, it by no means solves all of the problems with email/internet security. For instance, if you are not using PGP encryption, your emails are still being transmitted in cleartext and are readable by large telecoms and governments, who have large scale packet interception/analysis systems. And even if you are using PGP encryption, you are still not being protected from traffic analysis (i.e. the contents of your email might be unreadable, but they can still see who you are talking to and what the subject line of your emails are). Basically, you should always keep in mind that there is no such thing as perfect security, and that there is no simple technological solution that will make your communications totally secure. Understand what the benefits of switching to a secure email provider are, but don’t overestimate these benefits …

 

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