Interview with Robert E.G. Beens - CEO & Co-Founder at StartMail

Shauli Zacks Shauli Zacks

In an interview with SafetyDetectives, Robert E.G. Beens, CEO and co-founder of StartMail, sheds light on why email privacy should be a concern for everyone, not just tech-savvy individuals. Designed with the ethos that privacy is a fundamental human right, StartMail aims to shield your emails from Big Tech, advertisers, and government agencies. One of its standout features is the unlimited generation of email aliases, making it easier to protect and manage your online identity. Beens dives deep into the pressing issues surrounding email security, such as the rise in phishing attacks and the misconception that standard email services offer genuine privacy.

Hi Robert, thank you for your time. Can you talk about your journey and what motivated you to start StartMail?

Privacy and individual freedom have always been very important to me. I believe that every individual deserves the right to privacy, to be themselves and think freely, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others, of course.

My professional journey into the privacy field was somewhat coincidental. I was conducting a legal audit of my search engine Ixquick, and was horrified to learn how much personal user data was being stored. Realizing what could be done with so much personal data was our epiphany moment. With my co-founder David Bodnick, we were determined to challenge the status quo and launch the most secure and private search engine to date – which later became Startpage in 2006.

Little did I know that this was just the beginning of our privacy journey. Back then, online privacy wasn’t really a topic that people cared about much, because they hadn’t yet seen the risks that can arise from a loss of privacy on the internet. As our understanding of online privacy deepened, it was clear that our mission had to expand to a private email solution as well. Standard emails are just like postcards when it comes to security – not exactly what anyone would call private. We realized there was a dire need for an email service that could stand up to government snooping, commercial exploitation, phishing attacks, and annoying spam, and that’s how StartMail was born. It’s not just about protecting your information; it’s about empowering you to be in control of your data.

What are the flagship features of StartMail?

What’s central to StartMail is the unwavering belief that privacy is a fundamental human right. And that’s the very reason we’re here – to create a place where your emails aren’t up for grabs by Big Tech, advertisers, or government bodies. It’s your data, so you should be the one to decide who has access to it. I am very proud of everything we have accomplished with StartMail – it’s more than an email service, it’s a testament to our dedication to making things easier, safer, and more private.

One of the unique features of StartMail is that it lets you generate an unlimited number of aliases – disposable email addresses that help keep your main address exclusive and prevent spam and phishing. An alias can help protect your identity when you sign up for a new online service and ensures that your real email address remains hidden from sketchy sites. Aliases also help you cut down on junk mail, protect your inbox from SPAM and help identify where your data has been leaked or sold. If your email address has been sold or exposed in a data breach, you can expect the amount of junk mail you receive to increase significantly. When that happens, you can identify where the breach occurred and simply delete the alias. Aliases can also be an incredibly helpful tool to organize your inbox. You can filter all emails that come through an alias directly into a separate folder to keep your inbox clean and organized.

Other email providers limit the number of aliases you can create, but with us you can generate as many as you want and need. This feature has become a must-have for our privacy-conscious customers when it comes to protecting their online identity. Many tell us they couldn’t imagine going back to a limited number of aliases.

Why should the average person be concerned about their email privacy?

Every single one of us relies heavily on email to communicate and remain connected, but when it comes to online privacy, the spotlight often falls on tracking cookies or browsing histories. But protecting your email privacy is just as important, if not more so, because emails contain a lot of personal and sensitive details, such as financial or health information, or login credentials that you don’t want falling into the wrong hands.

We often expect security and privacy when it comes to sending emails, but the truth is that sending a standard email is comparable to sending a postcard: there’s no envelope or other protective barrier that shields the content of your message as it passes through the internet. Emails can therefore easily be seen, read, or even copied by anyone delivering your message.

On top of that many of the “free” email providers such as Gmail, Yahoo or other popular email services have been found to scan and analyze the content of your emails to generate targeted ads. They also keep copies of your emails, sometimes for months after you deleted them. This means that any email can be retrieved from your account if needed and shared with third parties, such as government agencies, upon request.

Another threat to your email privacy are phishing emails – an increasingly common method of cyber-attack, that can have devastating consequences if successful. According to a 2020 report, 91% of cyber-attacks start with a phishing email containing a link, attachment, or piece of code that can give the hacker access to the victim’s computer or network.

The safest way to protect your email from these threats and protect your privacy at the same time is to use a secure email provider like StartMail that offers security features such as encryption.

With so much emphasis on digital privacy, why do you believe many users still opt for convenience and free services over security when choosing email services?

It’s interesting that despite the growing privacy awareness, many people still choose free services over security when selecting digital services.

In my view, this choice often stems from the complex nature of terms like encryption or data protection, as well as lengthy privacy policies. For many individuals, these concepts can be overwhelming, creating a sense of uncertainty about where to even begin. This can sometimes result in a feeling that achieving true privacy might be unattainable, or too complex to tackle, prompting users to lean towards the familiar, even if it’s less secure.

For example, the prospect of moving years’ worth of emails from a provider like Gmail to a secure email service like StartMail might seem like a daunting task. The actual process, however, is a lot easier than it seems. StartMail offers a migration tool that helps move emails and contacts from platforms like Gmail or Yahoo with just a few simple clicks – no technical expertise required. As providers focused on privacy, we have an opportunity to better communicate the user-friendly benefits of our services. We can figuratively brighten the path to increased security, reassuring users that transitioning to privacy-focused solutions can be both achievable and incredibly rewarding.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that embracing privacy doesn’t necessitate an immediate overhaul of all your services and habits. It’s a step-by-step process, where each step towards enhanced privacy contributes to your overall online security.

Phishing remains one of the largest threats to email users. What proactive measures can users take to recognize and guard against such attacks?

Phishing emails pose a substantial threat to email users, and with the help of AI-tools, the attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and convincing. The best way to protect yourself is to upgrade your security and familiarize yourself with typical characteristics of phishing emails.

For example, phishing emails tend to employ urgency, such as a time-sensitive request to change your password or update your account information. They may ask you to submit for personal information or login credentials such as usernames, passwords, or credit card numbers. Some phishing emails will have links embedded in them, so you should be sure to check any links before clicking on them, as they may lead you to a fake login page. As a privacy measure, StartMail will warn you every time you click an external link in one of your emails to protect you from phishing attempts and keep your data safe.

Using email aliases is another protective mechanism against phishing attacks by ensuring your real email address remains confidential and shielded from potential threats. When you use a unique email alias for every service you sign up for, your primary email address remains hidden, minimizing the risk of it being targeted or compromised by phishers. This provides a significant boost to your overall email security, making it considerably more difficult for malicious actors to launch successful phishing attempts and helping you stay protected.

Another effective way to protect yourself is to enable Two-factor authentication (2FA) with an authenticator app on your mobile device for an additional layer of security. That way, even if someone gets hold of your password, they won’t be able to access your account without a one-time code sent to your phone.

What common misconceptions do users have regarding the security of their email content?

As I mentioned before, many assume that email is automatically private because you need a username and password to get in. But this is not necessarily the case unless you take active steps to protect the contents of your message, like sending encrypted messages.

Regular emails can be intercepted at various points along their journey from sender to recipient, such as during transit or while stored on an email server. Meaning, someone could read or even tweak the message without you knowing. On top of that, emails can be hacked if the email account’s password is weak or if the recipient falls victim to a phishing scam, enabling cybercriminals to read and delete emails, steal sensitive information, or use the email account to send spam or malware to others.

Encryption helps to protect emails by using mathematical algorithms that scramble the contents of an email into a jumble of characters that can only be decoded by those who possess the right key. This makes it difficult for hackers or other malicious actors to access and view the content of your emails.

Similarly, just because you delete an email, it does not necessarily mean it is removed from every location too. Many email services will keep copies of emails for some time even after deletion, so the potential of the email being recovered still exists. This is another reason why it’s important to choose a secure email provider. A secure email service like StartMail will not only provide you with encryption for your emails, but when you delete an email, it is immediately deleted from your secure user vault too.

About the Author

About the Author

Shauli Zacks is a tech enthusiast who has reviewed and compared hundreds of programs in multiple niches, including cybersecurity, office and productivity tools, and parental control apps. He enjoys researching and understanding what features are important to the people using these tools.