back to article ProtonMail deletes 'we don't log your IP' boast from website after French climate activist reportedly arrested

Encrypted email service ProtonMail has become embroiled in a minor scandal after responding to a legal request to hand over to Swiss police a user's IP address and details of the devices he used to access his mailbox – resulting in the netizen's arrest. Police were executing a warrant obtained by French authorities and served …

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  1. Yorick

    > though it's unclear why the company was logging user-agent strings and IP addresses of client logins

    The Protonmail statement says they can be compelled to log a user’s IP when Swiss law has been broken. That’s the most likely explanation: They got a court order and started logging IP addresses and user-agent strings for this particular user, after being presented with the order.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What court order?

      If they weren't logging those IP addresses and connection strings, there was nothing to seize. They said the weren't. As to a court order requiring you to implement such logging when demanded.... show me the law that says any such thing, that somehow cannot be challenged!

      Better still show me the court order itself. All I could find was copyright related (Article 77i CopA). The US pushed them to backdoor their privacy right, so they added a IP logging in the copyright law, but that's for copyright infringement.

      Whenever dealing with "Swiss" stuff that feels America, (I class Proton Mail as this), you should recall Crypto AG, the "Swiss" encryption system, that was actually a CIA front.

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/world/national-security/cia-crypto-encryption-machines-espionage/

      " The Swiss firm made millions of dollars selling equipment to more than 120 countries well into the 21st century. Its clients included Iran, military juntas in Latin America, nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, and even the Vatican."

      "But what none of its customers ever knew was that Crypto AG was secretly owned by the CIA in a highly classified partnership with West German intelligence. These spy agencies rigged the company’s devices so they could easily break the codes that countries used to send encrypted messages. "

      When you see a well funded company in encryption like this, I suggest you ask who the f**k funded that and who is the target audience. Is this company too good to be true?

      So don't be surprised when the slightest court order lands on a fake CIA operation, and they cave immediately to create case law, in Switzerland or elsewhere, because that's what they're there to do, fold. Create false case law, false consensus, undermine privacy rights.

      All that western tech, its all shit, its all backdoored. All secret police notices, all secret surveillance, backdoored encryption, false systems. All of it.

      1. Alpine_Hermit

        I agree with some of your points. But ProtonMail has always made it clear to anyone who reads their T&Cs that they come under Swiss laws and they are obliged to provide information to the authorities IF supported by a court order.

        The Swiss legal system is robust and the right to privacy strong. It fills me with hugely more confidence than in my old homeland which has sadly become an authoritarian tinpot nation, especially since the Johnson Junta took over.

        I use ProtonMail occasionally and never regarded it as a service that is totally hidden from the law, rather a service under stronger Swiss laws than the US and elsewhere.

        1. anothercynic Silver badge

          Did you read the English T&Cs or the French? That makes a big difference and that's what the controversy revolves around.

        2. Adam Nealis

          I've posted a couple of questions on the protonmail subreddit about what happens if they get a court order.

          There is never an official reply. Of course, I am just a non-entity, not worth replying to.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Thanks for reminding me about Crapto AG. Maybe it's time to consider quitting ProtonVPN. Any recommendations for replacement?

        1. Blackjack Silver badge

          Every VPN spies on you even those that say that don't. The business is in selling data not on the VPN service itself.

          1. Lon24 Silver badge

            I'm thinking using a one time pad sticking a stamp on it and plopping into any postbox is probably more secure unless the postie has an incredible memory - and some do!

            Otherwise there is nothing to trackback once delivered if you use disposable gloves.

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
              Coat

              "Otherwise there is nothing to trackback once delivered if you use disposable gloves."

              ...and remember not to lick the envelope!

              The trenchoat with the dark glasses in the pocket. And the Fedora ----------------->

              1. Mnot Paranoid
                Gimp

                Philatelicks

                Stamps and envelopes have been self-adhesive for many years now. Our survey revealed that most people didn't like the licking.

                1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

                  Re: Philatelicks

                  And before that you could either use a wet sponge or a dog's tongue.

                  1. HelpfulJohn

                    Re: Philatelicks

                    Dogs have DNA, too though it is rarely registered in massive government databases.

                    Or so we are led to believe. :)

          2. idiot taxpayer here again

            @Blackjack. EVERY VPN?

            A sweeping statement indeed. Please present the proof. Just to feed your paranoia, there are at least 4 trackers om this page. (Doubleclick.net, google-analytics.com. googletagmanager.com, twitter.com)

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Outlook.com now has an encrypted mail function. Uncle Bill and Uncle Sam would never do to us what the Swiss did ⸮

        3. katrinab Silver badge
          Black Helicopters

          I would actually recommend you don't use a VPN for this purpose, and use burner phones paid for with cash.

          If you want to for example watch American Netflix outside of the US, or BBC iPlayer outside of the UK; then VPNs might help with that, otherwise I think you are just advertising yourself as someone who is up to no good, and if anything, making it easier for them to track you.

          1. Trenjeska

            in (most) EU countries, buying any telephone with access to the network mandates personal registration with proof of identification. Burner phones are very difficult to come by.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Only marks you as a target of interest

            Using a burner phone - makes you stick out like a sore thumb. All they do is filter out all the "known phones" (that they know who owns what), and focus on the "unknowns".

      3. heyrick Silver badge

        All that western tech, its all shit, its all backdoored.

        FTFY.

      4. Nate Amsden

        "If they weren't logging those IP addresses and connection strings, there was nothing to seize."

        It sounds like they have the ability to log based on user account. So perhaps while they don't log normally, if such a request comes in that they have to get the IP then they can flip a flag in their code/config to start logging for that particular user account, then assuming the user logs in again they have the information.

        If you are that paranoid about hiding your IP etc then you shouldn't be trusting a single provider like this, should be routing traffic over multiple different places to further obscure your information, and not wait for some news event like this to start doing it. Also of course use a dedicated browser that is not used for anything else except that service, if your even more paranoid perhaps use a dedicated VM with that browser.

        Seeing the anonymous relay service they offer in the article reminds me of my early internet days using the I think it was anon.penet.fi (??) email relay, sometimes took days for email to be processed through that. I have been hosting my own personal email(around 350 different addresses for different purposes at the moment) since about 1997(along with web, DNS and anything else I want). Though of course doing that is not for 99.999% of people out there.

      5. HildyJ Silver badge
        Holmes

        Blame the French

        The court order was from French authorities and transmitted to Switzerland via Europol (an EU version of Interpol). The logging only began after the court order.

        The data was requested as part of an investigation into a group of climate activists who have occupied several commercial spaces and apartments in Paris.

      6. Trenjeska

        Any Dutch company that provides communication between 2 or more persons/entities is by default required to log that basic information by LAW. Not logging it is already punishable. So yes anonymity is fleeting.

    2. anothercynic Silver badge

      The problem is that the English statement on their site said that they would log (and retain) IP addresses for a certain period of time, and would if required by Swiss law provide them to law enforcement.

      HOWEVER - The French statement said no such thing. The French statement was simply "we don't log any IP addresses", and *that* is where the brown smelly stuff hit the big round metal whirly thing.

      There was a long thread on Twitter between the CEO of ProtonMail and some of the French folks raising the objections that the messaging was inconsistent. If you're a French person, you were under the impression you were safe (unless you read the English version too, but since there is a version français, why would you). If you were English, you knew what you were getting yourself into and understood that once Swiss law enforcement was involved, all bets were off.

      There was even a question from someone asking if ProtonMail would start deploying canaries. I don't remember whether there was a response to that.

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        The problem with canaries is that the people we most need canaries over are the same people who influence the lawmakers.

        https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2709#c

    3. DevOpsTimothyC Bronze badge

      The Protonmail statement says they can be compelled to log a user’s IP when Swiss law has been broken.

      Exactly which SWISS law was broken? French ones, yes sure, but the statement says Swiss.

      They got a court order and started logging IP addresses and user-agent strings for this particular user, after being presented with the order.

      AFAIK A court order cannot force you to log that sort of thing if you never logged any of that information in the first place. That was effectively Apple's defence about getting into phones. There was no mechanism, they would have to create one.

      A defence here is "We do not log produce web server logs. We have no infrastructure to retain those logs. To comply with this court order would cost ......"

      1. katrinab Silver badge

        There would be a Swiss law that is equivalent to the French one that was [allegedly] broken.

  2. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Absolute privacy/anonymity on the Internet is hard. Very hard.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Nope, just use the "off" button on your device.

  3. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
    FAIL

    Tor

    Pretty much reinforces that if one wants to be difficult to track down, you'd probably be wise to put Tor between yourself and protonmail. (Or anything else.)

    Better yet, don't use the Internet.

    1. IGotOut Silver badge

      Re: Tor

      There are plenty of cases where TOR has been used and people still get caught.

      It makes it difficult to trace, not impossible.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Tor

        yes, it does not make it impossible, but the key adjective is "difficult". Unless those after you, are very, very, very powerful, the 'difficult' becomes 'good enough'.

        1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

          Re: Tor

          Yes, for tracking of IP connections it would probably require the 5-eyes to bother to use their resources and data - not likely for much except terrorism.

          However, Tor is not a magic privacy screen: there are plenty of possible mistakes that can still be made using Tor for privacy and anonymity. As a simple example, if you have a ProtonMail account and have ever sent a message to anyone's personal email address, they could be contacted to ask if they know who you are or anything about you, or their address can be correlated with clearnet emails to try to get some idea of who you might be. So, never forward, CC or send any message (however innocuous the message itself is) from your ProtonMail account to anyone who knows who you are (and certainly NEVER to your normal email account). Obvious in hindsight, but easy to forget.

          And there are many other mistakes it would be easy to make. Tor only protects IP addresses, not other ways of finding out who you are.

    2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Tor

      You are aware that Tor was created by the US intelligence community ?

      If you think they don't know how to subvert it, I have a bridge to sell you.

      1. JWLong Bronze badge

        Re: Tor

        @Pascal Monett

        It was the US NAVY that developed TOR, with intelligent agency help I'm sure.

        And I loved the "buy a bridge" comment. I trust the internet about as far as I can throw a handful of feathers.

        1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          I absolutely agree on who is responsible for Tor, but intelligence agencies were absolutely a part of it.

          The quote I refer to is this :

          "The core principle of Tor, Onion routing, was developed in the mid-1990s by United States Naval Research Laboratory employees, mathematician Paul Syverson, and computer scientists Michael G. Reed and David Goldschlag, to protect U.S. intelligence communications online. "

          The CIA and the NSA have their hands in this, make no mistake.

          As for the bridge, I'm sorry but that it is traditional Internet-speak :).

          As for your feathers, are they frozen ?

          1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

            As for the bridge, I'm sorry but that it is traditional Internet-speak :).

            It predates the internet by at least a couple of decades.

    3. steviebuk Silver badge

      Re: Tor

      For Tor to be affective you need to be using a VPN as well so you encrypt your Tor connection. This is because so many Tor exit nodes are comprised and can be sniffed and monitored.

      1. AVee

        Re: Tor

        I'd think that's bad advice in most cases.

        If the police get an IP address from a mail provider which turns out to be a TOR exit they can track that back to where the connection originated. If the TOR exit is compromised they can see where you are going to some extend, but if you properly use https for everything that's not telling them to much. The exit node too cannot tell where the connection originated. So if the police is trying to figure out who you are they are pretty much stuck.

        Now add the VPN. The police gets an IP address which points to a VPN provider. They get a warrant and the VPN provider tells them the original IP for that connection, the account used to log in, billing address and credit card used and other IP addresses used by that account. They ignore the IP address and go straight for the credit card holder. Not really an improvement I'd think.

        On top of that the VPN provider is the exit same position as the exit node. They can sniff and monitor just as much. Assuming they don't seems pretty naive to me.

        1. katrinab Silver badge
          Black Helicopters

          Re: Tor

          VPN is probably worse, because they likely have everything; whereas without VPN, your traffic is likely split between your landline provider, cellphone provider, public wifi, etc.

        2. steviebuk Silver badge

          Re: Tor

          Not really as lots of VPN providers give you the option to buy their service anonymously.

    4. Bartholomew

      Re: Tor

      > Pretty much reinforces that if one wants to be difficult to track down, you'd probably be wise to put Tor between yourself and protonmail. (Or anything else.)

      Tor only works "IF" you assume that there is no way to cross-correlate the approximate timing and approximate packet sizes entering the tor network with those leaving the tor network.

      1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

        Re: Tor

        Possibly true, but that is certainly beyond the capabilities of all except really major agencies like NSA. And even for them it is likely they would need to know in advance - I am sure they don't collect per-packet traffic data on all links on the Internet everywhere.

        The main advantage/purpose of Tor is to prevent blocking of access to sites/data. Anonymity is a lesser goal but, in my view, is still likely to be quite effective except in particular, targetted cases.

        1. Bartholomew

          Re: Tor

          You do not need to harvest and store the data, only the metadata.

  4. KarMann Silver badge
    Coat

    Cops can read the SMTP spec too, y'know
    [Citation needed]

    Oh, sure enough, the cops just gave me a citation!

    1. teknopaul Silver badge

      Nothing is unencrypted in modern smtp

      "unencrypted information from email headers, inherent to the SMTP email specification,*

      Smtp should not be run plain text its generally tunnelled over ssl or the is an upgrade to ssl on port 25. There is minimal handshake before starttls.

      All email headers should be encrypted in transit only ip address would be visible if the promises about not logging were true.

      In this case its not true. I'll believe them that they took special measures for this court order.

      In the UK you have to log ips incase the spy's want it,

      And when they ask you are not allowed to tell anyone.

      The fact that we hear about this is a ringing endorsement of swiss law and proton mail. You Were wrong if you thought it impossible.

      But check yer spec knowledge much like http Smtp can be run fully plain text or fully over ssl or can upgrade to ssl on the same socket.

      1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

        Re: Nothing is unencrypted in modern smtp

        I have my mail server set up to add a warning in the subject line of received mail if it crossed a link that did not use starttls. Very little mail now triggers the warning, but some still does.

        And, of course, the headers are completely unencrypted inside every forwarding node - and no one knows what they choose to log (they might choose to take a full copy of every email they see).

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Who'd have thunk it ?

    just that really. If you don't own manage and understand what's happening with your data, why would you be surprised ?

  6. Mike 137 Silver badge

    "As a Swiss company, ProtonMail is obliged to obey Swiss law and comply with Swiss legal demands"

    This is of course the case in every jurisdiction on the planet, which is to some extent why the fuss over US Privacy Shield as a special case was somewhat peculiar. Even under the GDPR the forces of law and order have special access to personal data in pursuit of their duties (for rather obvious reasons).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Not quite always...

      "This is of course the case in every jurisdiction on the planet..."

      Yes and no. There are still (thankfully!) a number of places on this planet that are nominally within the jurisdiction of an entity that lacks the physical ability to enforce its own laws (there's also Antarctica which is its own weird case). ProtonMail would be far more secure if it were located in Somalia and surrounded by mercenary riflemen, an armored division, and a few SAM batteries. While it would still nominally be obligated to obey Somali law, the so-called authorities would have no practical ability to enforce it and it's inconceivable that they would even try on behalf of France. Whether such an entity would be able to defend all of its connectivity is another matter; satellite communication could be used, but China has effective control of all orbital craft. Everything else comes with choke points and links to less friendly nations.

      We've all known for a long time that PM's marketing guff about being located in a Swiss bunker was just that. Now they've gone and proved it. Even if PM isn't being run by the CIA, it may as well be. They were simply playing on long-outdated memories of Swiss banking secrecy laws that were dismantled by the United States and their allies 50 years ago. Those laws never had any application to PM's services anyway and the simple fact is that the Swiss will happily give up anyone and anything to anyone, just like all western governments.

      If anyone is still paying for PM today I cannot fathom why; there are other services that are much cheaper and much more honest about the security they offer (i.e., none). If you want to encrypt your message content, go ahead (that's all PM gave you anyway) but as you can see, that won't help you. If you need privacy, you need to set up your own encrypted radio links or on a local basis you can use suitable dead-drops for OTP-encrypted paper notes. The former is easier for the enemy to locate; the latter is more physically dangerous for the people communicating. If you aren't sufficiently serious about your cause to take those steps, you aren't serious enough to go to prison for it, either, which means you need to limit yourself to (invariably ineffective) lawful protest. Using someone else's infrastructure means you're trusting people who will be given trivial incentives to betray you. Letting a rank and file cop sitting at his desk in Paris send you up just by sending an email is a disgrace to your own cause; if you care enough to risk ending up in prison, learn proper tradecraft and make the enemy work for it.

      1. Clausewitz 4.0
        Devil

        Re: Not quite always...

        Nice Somalia idea

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Not quite always...

          Because Somalia's territory is now magically immune from foreign interference, and its internet links and addresses magically protected?

          Unlike Switzerland, they'd be in a really poor position to defend themselves if, after being asked to act, they did not or could not, and then whatever more powerful government decided it was time to block its IP addresses, its DNS, or send in a drone to shutdown a datacenter.

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