Posted in Communications, Technology

Concerned over your email privacy and security? Why not host your email server at home or office?

Email is a vital tool for everyone – for large corporations, small businesses, freelancers, and all individuals. It is the one universal address everyone can have. Especially individuals and small businesses tend to use free email services, like Gmail or Yahoo Mail without thinking too much about the risks they include. When the startup company Helm introduced a solution that lets anyone to host an email server at home or in an office cubicle, it is time to analyze what really is the best email solution for a privacy and security-conscious individual and small business.

Assuming that you are not using a corporate email system for all your messaging needs, the common choices for getting an email solution are:

  • A. Free email, like Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo.
  • B. Buy a domain name with email.
  • C. Helm email server at home.

Of course, more ways for solving the problem of secure email exist. Tinkerers, hackers and people with good technology skills can set up their own email servers and protect them from hackers, but it really requires expertise and quite a lot of time.

(A) Free email with advertising risks not only your data, but also everyone you interact with

Since the business model in free email services usually is to take your personal data, sell it to third parties, and use it for advertising, free email services are not for everyone (good alternatives exist). They are also very lucrative targets for hackers because the reward can be millions of user ids, passwords and personal data. I got fed up with Google’s free services when they couldn’t understand I was traveling.

  • Price: free.
  • Usability: good.
  • Privacy: weak.
  • Security: frequent hacker target.
  • Access when traveling: very painful or none.
domain name registration at 1and1.co.uk
Domain name finder at 1and1.co.uk.

(B) A purchased domain name with email is a safe long-term solution

If you buy a domain name (an internet name, like mybusiness.com or coolphotographer.co.uk ) from an ISP (web service hosting company), you may get an email address with the name, or you pay a little extra for the email service. The same applies if you buy a web page hosting service for your web pages from an ISP.

This solution guarantees you an email address (and web address if you need one) of your choice that you can keep as long as you want. Once a year, when the renewal of the domain name is actual, you can decide how long you want to hold on to the address.

Email services hosted by ISPs are protected so that no one can see the messages. The communication between you and the email server running in the ISP’s computer locker is encrypted. The weakest link is the password that users set for their email boxes.

A tip for privacy-conscious email users: sign up for a service that is operating in Europe in an EU country. EU’s privacy laws are strict, and if you want even more, look for a company in Germany or in Scandinavian countries. They have the strictest privacy laws that businesses have to follow.

  • Price: 10-30 euros/dollars per year.
  • Usability: good.
  • Privacy: very good.
  • Security: good.
  • Access when traveling: yes.
Helm email server on a table
Helm (on the left).

(C) A self-hosted email system like Helm lets you literally hold the message storage in your hand

The design goal of the Helm email was a robust solution where privacy and security are priorities. The solution consists of two elements: a hardware box at home or in an office where the actual email messages are stored, and a routing system running in Helm’s computer room. The routing system ensures email messages find the right Helm server wherever it may be located.

Messages in the Helm device are encrypted, as well as messages in transition. There is a risk of someone stealing the actual device where the messages are stored, but access to the files is protected with two factor authentication. Every customer gets a unique domain name.

In essence, you pay for a ready-to-run email server computer that you have at home (or wherever you want). The extra electricity and bandwidth it consumes should not worry anyone too much.

  • Price: USD 499 for the hardware and USD 99 per year for the routing and maintenance service.
  • Usability: (most likely) good.
  • Privacy: very good.
  • Security: very good.
  • Access when traveling: yes.

Wired has more product details from the Helm founder. In addition, Boing Boing pondered the merits and shortcomings of the Helm product from openness point of view.

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