“The Big Brother is watching” isn’t so much a quote from a famous book as a harsh reality. Complete privacy is just not a thing anymore in the modern environment of cyber threats and increasingly nosy governments. When you want to keep your personal data safe, a protected email service is the first thing you’d want to have. Thankfully, there’s a wide choice of such services, Countermail and ProtonMail being the two of them. Let’s talk about Countermail vs ProtonMail in terms of effectiveness, level of protection, usability, and other important factors.
What’s a secure email service? Basically, it’s the easiest way to keep your online correspondence confidential. These services don’t just offer a protected, encrypted email; they keep your anonymity intact. Sure, there are lots of user-friendly free email services out there that can do their job of sending and receiving mail pretty well. But if you need to be sure that every single message you send or get is completely protected from the prying eye of any third parties, you’ve got to get acquainted with the secure email providers.
The majority of people now are using Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo email. Are they easy to use? Undoubtedly. Do they protect your confidentiality? Not so much. Yahoo created software for the NSA to spy on user emails. Google acknowledged they sometimes let third parties read messages on their user accounts. Microsoft was so generous as to assist the NSA in spying on Hotmail, Skype, and Outlook users under the PRISM project. Just think about it. These are the biggest email service providers that have millions of user accounts under their control.
The reliability of an email service depends on several factors:
1. Protection from hacker attacks and interception.
2. Complete confidentiality (which means that even the service provider developers don’t have access to your personal data).
3. Total refusal of service providers from cooperation with intelligence agencies.
Both Countermail and ProtonMail seem to meet these requirements (or at least they claim they do). Let’s see how these to live up to your email security expectations.
Countermail is a Swedish email service with a special emphasis on confidentiality. According to Countermail developers, it’s a secure and easy to use web service developed to ensure no-fuss maximum protection and confidentiality. Countermail utilizes Java for the system access activation.
Countermail encryption works automatically and doesn’t require any advanced tech knowledge. If regular free email services work fine for you, Countermail will feel just as easy.
Countermail is for those who take their privacy seriously. The service offers a reliable OpenPGP encryption protocol with 4096-bit encryption keys. And at the moment there are just no known methods that would allow a person or a group of people to hack the OpenPGP encryption. All encrypted emails are stored on Countermail servers.
This is a secure email service that seems to do its best. Firstly, the Sweden-based servers don’t store your messages on hard drives. All data is stored on compact disks. This helps to prevent any data leaks. And when someone tries to manipulate the servers directly, all data will be irrevocably lost.
One of the things you can do with Countermail is to set up a USB drive to enable additional encryption of your email. The decryption key will be stored on your device and will also be required to access your email account. This makes any decryption attempt by third parties near impossible, even if they somehow get access to your password. And while it might seem like a somewhat annoying complication compared to other services, it actually offers better functionality. After all, the ability to use IMAP and SMTP gives you access to any service with the OpenPGP encryption.
The service supports Linux, macOS, and Windows. It also offers IMAP support, in case you want to use your personal email client. Countermail has a week-long trial period with limited storage space, after which you’ll have to pay a fee of at least $6,33 per month.
Here are some extra features the Countermail users can enjoy:
ProtonMail is probably one of the most respected and widely used secure email services. There is a reason why Forbes called the service “NSA-proof”, after all. Protonmail servers are Switzerland based, which means that the US government can’t shut them down or bully the developers into sharing user data with them.
The service uses end-to-end encryption, which pretty much is a must for any secure email service. This kind of encryption makes it completely impossible for any third parties to intercept or read your messages. All of them will be encrypted and only users who have the decryption keys can read them. What’s more, ProtonMail doesn’t keep a record of user IP addresses.
Creating an account is free of charge but to use certain additional features, you’ll need to sign up for a tariff plan.
Those additional features include a free multi-platform VPN software that works both for PC and mobile devices. There’s also an encrypted contact manager that protects your data with encryption and digital signature.
The web version of the service you can use in your browser strongly reminds of Gmail and includes similar elements. A navigation menu block, message block, and a separate block where your message content opens. The design is absolutely user-friendly, pleasing to the eye, simple, and clean.
It gets a little more complicated when it comes to PC mail clients. Technically, ProtonMail developers claim that their service is absolutely compatible with other mail clients like Microsoft Outlook. What they forget to mention is that in order to do this, you’ll have to download additional software called ProtonMail Bridge. The good news is it’s available for both Windows and MacOS.
ProtonMail works just as well on iOS or Android. As always, all you have to do is download the app. And TOR fans will be happy to know that ProtonMail has a website on a .onion domain so they can actually access their mailboxes without leaving the anonymous network.
So what kind of features can ProtonMail offer?
Countermail doesn’t offer a great choice of various features. But then again, how many features do you need if all you care about is the security of your correspondence? There is an option to use more than one username on a single account. There is an option to set up an automatic response to messages. You can manage your spam and message folders like you can with your regular Gmail or Hotmail account. Unfortunately, you won’t find a protected calendar among the features.
There’s a couple of especially interesting features to talk about, though. The first one is the website forms you can generate and encrypt to receive answers to your email. The second one is the Safebox feature, which is basically a password manager.
These features, however, will hardly be a gamechanger for any user. Besides, the creation of forms will take some skills and time. You’ll at least have to know your way around HTML.
It has to be noted that all of the above is behind a paywall: Countermail is a paid service that only offers a week-long free trial.
As for ProtonMail, you get as many features as you are prepared to pay for. In the free version, you’ll only find default folders like Inbox, Outbox, Archive, Spam, and Trash. Apart from that, you’ll be allowed to create no more than three customized folders. The features of automatic response and message filter can be activated only for a paid version. The only thing you can use as a free version user is message preview.
However, if there’s nothing you need from your email but sending and receiving completely private messages, the free ProtonMail version will work just fine for you.
When it comes to security, Countermail provides your standard set of features that’s a must-have for any secure email out there. The service utilizes the OpenPGP encryption protocol with 4096 encryption keys and also offers end-to-end encryption. There is also an option to use a secure USB code (key). It pretty much makes it impossible to access your Countermail account unless your USB drive isn’t connected to your device’s USB port. The option is a bit clunky if you ask me but what wouldn’t you do for a little extra security?
No part of your personal information including your login is stored at company servers, so you can be sure that you are the only one who has access to this data. Unless you decide to share it with someone else, of course.
What seems like a setback is that Countermail doesn’t offer an open-source code for public viewing.
ProtonMail developers don’t joke around when security is at stake. To ensure it they, for example, offer an option of using two-factor authentication. This means that by scanning a QR code, you can get 16 additional one-time codes the system will ask you to submit whenever you try to access your account.
What’s more, all users can get detailed information on sessions. The service will notify you about the number of sessions that are currently active and when exactly they were created. Max session length is six months (or two weeks if there’s no activity whatsoever). After the expiration of this period, the system will request your login and password information again.
Along with that, what you get is an account log. It documents each and every attempt to access your account. And the paid version will offer information on IP addresses as well. So you can track any attempt to hack into your email.
ProtonMail also offers to use your personal encryption key. The personal encryption key is basically a signature that lets your recipients make sure the messages came from your mailbox. Another thing that speaks in its favor is the application’s open-source code that can be viewed and assessed by any users at any time.
During account registration, you’ll have to go past the standard “I’m not a robot” captcha. The registration offers a few options. You can register by submitting another email address, your phone number, or donate some money to the app developers. Of course, the fact that you have to provide your phone number or credit card details makes you think about how secure it really is.
The service utilizes the HTTPS protocol and all messages are encrypted using the AES-256 encryption key. According to ProtonMail developers, if both sender and recipient are ProtonMail users, their messages will be encrypted based on the end-to-end principle. It means that no third parties will ever get access to the information contained in their messages. If one of the corresponding users uses a mail service other than ProtonMail, messaging will be less secure. Besides, all metadata (like titles and headers) remains visible.
Honestly speaking, the Countermail website doesn’t have much of a design to talk about. You can call it overly simplified for the sake of ultimate practicality, sure. But how practical are links that don’t work and high contrast colors that make your eyes water as soon as you visit the website? It’s easy to see that Countermail developers have invested much more care and effort into the email app itself.
If something like that isn’t an issue for you, you’ll find that getting an account is easy and fast. There are many links that will lead you straight to the registration form. As soon as that’s over, you’ll be redirected to your account – and thrown a decade back. The design is just so web 1.0. Not a great setback if privacy is your priority and you are not here to enjoy the view, though.
Be prepared that fonts in your messages can randomly change and you’ll never get any explanation why. In fact, getting any explanation of some things and features about this mail service is something you have to forget about. Some things you just have to figure out all by yourself. For example, how to encrypt messages you send to other services. Taking into account the fact that Countermail isn’t a free service, it might get somewhat annoying.
ProtonMail developers have also clearly chosen simplicity over unnecessary bells and whistles. However, ProtonMail design looks far more up to date and easy on your eyes.
The first look at the ProtonMail mailbox design makes you think they’ve done their best to make it as neutral as it gets. To achieve this effect, they used calm cold colors like grey and pale purple. You won’t find any flashy icons or logos here. Someone might think this kind of design is boring. But in fact, it never distracts you from what you are here for. Besides, the navigation and settings are intuitively understandable and extremely easy to use.
With Countermail, there is no way to use the service free of charge outside the week-long free trial period. It’s not exactly cheap, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that increased security and privacy protection are worth more than that.
There’s no variety of tariff plans. Basically, what they offer is a single plan that lasts from six months to two years, depending on the amount of money you are prepared to pay. It’s good to see that there’s an option to pay for a whole year or two ahead. There seems to be a small discount when you choose a longer period, but it’s not mind-blowing.
You also might want to choose to pay up for some extra storage space. That will cost you from $19 for 250 MB of additional space to $89 for 1750 MB.
With ProtonMail, if you feel like the standard features of the free version don’t work for you, you can choose one of three tariff plans. The cheapest one costs $4 per month. For that price, you get a mailbox with a storage space of 5 GB, a user domain, 200 folders, and the chance to send up to 1000 messages a day.
For the second plan, you’ll have to pay up $6,25. Again, you get 5GB of space plus a limitless number of folders and daily messages, two user domains, an automatic response feature, and user filters.
Finally, the most expensive plan is $24 per month and apart from all of the above, it will give you five additional addresses per username and ProtonMail VPN software.
There is no doubt that Countermail developers have invested a lot of effort into creating a truly secure email service that protects the privacy of your messages 24/7. Some usability issues notwithstanding, it seems like a fairly competent service created by professionals. If it wasn’t a paid service (and not a cheap one), I’d be happy to recommend it to anyone.
Read also: Best Paid Email Services 2020
But the thing is there are multiple free services that offer similar features and the same level of privacy for less. ProtonMail is one of them. Taking into account its reputation among the people who know a thing or two about online security, it seems like a better choice for me.