Pushing to protect online privacy – A look at emerging encryption startup ZenMate

The NSA scandal and Twitter ban in Turkey have sparked a surge in users for online privacy protection tools. While most of them seem to hail from the US, we take a look at European startup ZenMate...
Pushing to protect online privacy – A look at emerging encryption startup ZenMate

A day after Turkish Prime Minster Tayyip Erdogan instigated a Twitter ban last month, tweets sent in the country were up 138%, according to data published by social analytics firm Brandwatch.

Erdogan’s attempts to block access to the social network appeared to have backfired with many Turkish citizens circumventing the ban with various workarounds.

Popular bypasses of the blockage included Twitter’s SMS workaround, Google’s free DNS service as well as various tools offered by privacy protection firms.

Growth for privacy protection tools

Within 12 hours of Turkey blocking Twitter, California-based service Hotspot Shield – a free VPN (virtual private network) that encrypts data and allows users to anonymously surf the net – saw 250,000 downloads from Turkey.

In the same time period, Berlin-based startup ZenMate, which offers a browser plugin that encrypts user connections and acts like a VPN, also noticed a surge of 25,000 new registered users.

But it’s not the first time these companies have seen spikes in downloads during a government uprising, Hotspot Shield and ZenMate both reported similar patterns in the past with political unrest in Egypt and Ukraine respectively.

Similarly, systems such as Massachusetts-based Tor, which can be used to mask a computer’s location by redirecting its traffic to servers around the globe, continued to experience a spike in new users several days after the Twitter blockage in Turkey.

The rapid response by Turkish citizens also indicates how social media has made it difficult for governments to silence communication of any kind. It’s a sign that people around the world, regardless of age and income, are increasingly supporting Internet freedom.

Interestingly, despite much talk of Europe moving ahead on Internet rules, most of these privacy protection companies hail from the US with the exception of ZenMate, which launched just nine months ago.

Following ZenMate's recent milestone of hitting 2.5 million registered users, we spoke to its co-founder Simon Specka about the crowded space of online privacy protection services, the idea of a European Internet, and future plans for the young startup...

"A one-click solution"

With the NSA scandal and our current climate of mass surveillance, Internet security has become a hot topic.

For the average user, navigating the abundance of tools promising privacy protection online can be a headache, especially when descriptions are often riddled with tech jargon.

So what makes ZenMate's Google Chrome plugin different from established VPN providers such as Hotspot Shield or web proxies such as Hide My Ass?

Specka said that while Hotspot Shield is a full-fledged VPN solution that requires installation on the desktop, ZenMate offers a simple browser-based plugin with VPN-like features.

“We’re basically a one-click solution, where people just click once and the plugin is installed. You don’t have to install desktop software and all that stuff – it’s a key differentiator,” he added.


Ease-of-use is a strong focus for the startup, particularly because the startup’s goal is “to become the leading privacy and security brand for the mass market, worldwide”.

How it works: ZenMate creates a tunnel – similar to a VPN – between the user’s device and its Internet gateway. This tunnel prevents hackers or governments from spying on web-browsing activities and anything sent over the network through your browser.

As for web proxies, Specka explained that many of them only hide your IP address, but don’t encrypt all traffic.

“There are web proxies that just change your IP,” he said. “But we don’t aim to be an ‘unblocker’, we aim to be a security solution. Our main feature is the encryption of the browser and that’s how we protect from hacking attempts.”

The startup also claims to offer the best of both worlds by combining heavy VPN-like encryption in the browser with lightweight proxy plugin-style installation.

However, while ZenMate protects traffic coming in and out of the browser, other applications using the Internet are not secured. And unlike Hotspot Shield, users should note that ZenMate's plugin can't anonymize information manually entered into websites.

Targeting the masses

The idea for ZenMate originated while Specka and technical co-founder Markus Hänel (both pictured below) were living abroad.

ZenMate founders

“We were always using VPN solutions when traveling to protect ourselves at airports or places with unprotected WiFi,” recalled Specka. “But we weren’t happy with the way they worked. Some were difficult to use – when you closed the laptop, then reopened it, you’d have to restart the connection again, which was kind of annoying.”

So the pair came up with a browser-focused security solution that strives to be easy-to-use, even for those who aren’t incredibly tech savvy.

“We thought, almost everyone has anti-virus solutions on their computer but, today, people don’t really work on the computer anymore. Specifically, the desktop is moving to the cloud and the Internet is now as protection-worthy as the computer itself,” he said.

However, not all privacy protection tools can be trusted. Some diligently log user connection times and IP addresses claiming it as a measure against illegal user activity.

When asked whether ZenMate collects or logs any user data, Specka responded, “We don’t log anything at all and benefit strongly from being in Germany. It has one of the strongest data privacy laws in the world... It’s a very strong USP compared to our competitors.”

“There are jurisdictions where they actually have to log things – here, we’re not even allowed to store data,” he added. “Data is just being piped through our service, nothing is stored and no user can be identified.”

Thoughts on a “European Internet”

It’s no secret that Germany employs some of Europe’s most stringent privacy and data laws.

In light of the NSA allegations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went so far as to push for a European communications network designed to curb surveillance. The project would offer protection from surveillance by avoiding data transfer through servers in the US.

Though Specka thinks the initiative is laudable, he also believes it is naive.

Recently, he addressed the issue in a blog post and stated:

Firstly, the web may have been devised in Switzerland by an Englishman, but the internet on which it runs is American through and through. From its inception as a US defence network through its adoption by academia, US institutions still control much of the network.


Unpicking Europe from this web would be, as techies say, 'non-trivial'. Brazil, which has mooted a similar programme, conceded it would need to construct its own submarine cables, build internet exchange points in its own soil and build its own state-encrypted email service.

Secondly, any nation could create its own privately-encrypted internet, but what happens when its citizens carry on accessing their favourite Yahoo, Google or CNN? Regardless of underlying infrastructure, every popular internet service today sits on US servers. Accessing them from a “European internet” means leaving the safety of your encrypted idyll. Over the border, in US cyberspace, spies are free to go on harvesting data on any Europeans who hit their servers.

Sure, European governments could compel domestic ISPs not to allow access to US servers in an effort to force US operators to host in Europe, where data could be protected - but this would lead to a massive consumer outcry.

What’s next for ZenMate?

At the moment, Specka told me that ZenMate receives about 20,000 new signups per day.

He also said the startup, which took part in the first cycle of the Axel Springer Plug and Play Accelerator, has received about one million euros in total funding. Last year, ZenMate secured a six-figure funding around from Project A Ventures.

The browser plugin is currently free, but the startup wants to eventually implement a freemium model. For now, the focus is demonstrating to users that ZenMate is trustworthy and valuable.

As for the future, the team is working on a mobile version and planning to release a plugin for Firefox.

“We don’t believe it’s our business to interfere with governments, we are a commercial company, but we do believe in a free and unrestricted Internet,” said Specka. “We provide services to help people but it’s up to people how they use our service. We are not fighting against governments – it’s not our job. But our job is to provide tools that can help people access the free Internet.”

Featured image credit: Maksim Kabakou / Shutterstock

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