Privacy and the Future of Email: An Interview With Our CTO Ricardo Signes
In this article, Fastmail CTO Ricardo Signes talks to 1Password about the power of email aliases, how to be a good digital citizen, and why online privacy is so important.
What does the future of email look like? And, how can you be a better digital citizen? Ricardo Signes, Chief Technology Officer at Fastmail sat down with 1Password to answered these questions and more. Check out the highlights below, or listen to the full interview with Ricardo on 1Password's podcast, Random but Memorable.
Random But Memorable: Tell us a bit about Fastmail.
Ricardo Signes: Fastmail—we provide email, contacts and calendar hosting. When someone asks me what we do I say we’re like hotmail, except our product is really, really good. We want the features that we build to make people feel good about using them—to make people enjoy the experience of reading their mail, writing their mail, and dealing with their calendar.
RBM: What’s interesting about Fastmail is it’s a paid email service in a sea of free email providers—how is that received and how does that work?
RS: I think it works great. A lot of people are used to the idea that email is free, but providing email isn’t free. The person providing the service has to spend money to create their product, so how are they getting the money back to recoup the cost? Most email service providers make their money by selling advertising, so their incentive is to make choices that optimize targeting and selling ads.
When the only income for a company comes from people paying for the service, then the company’s incentive is to serve the customer and give the customer what they want. When you look at services that do this, not just email, but other places, you can see the results—you get a product that serves the user better.
RBM: So it’s the old adage of—if you’re not paying for the service, then you’re the thing being sold. I think that something a lot of people aren’t even aware of when you look at some of the big email service providers out there, between Yahoo!, Hotmail, and Google—those services don’t have your privacy in mind. Do you think there is a big awareness gap for customers?
RS: Yeah, the problem is a lack of mindfulness about privacy in general. Privacy needs to be something that we build into our thinking. Your email address is like your internet social security number, it’s like your credit card, and you’re just giving it out to people all the time—and you don’t think about the fact that behind the scenes all of your identities are put together using your email address, which has an impact on your overall privacy landscape.
RBM: What do you say to people who come back with the argument “I have nothing to hide?
RS: Some amount of privacy is a fundamental human need—nobody thinks you’re a weirdo if you close your curtains at night! Privacy is not about having some deep, weird secrets you need to hide. Saying you have nothing to hide is focusing on the idea that there’s something weird going on, when in reality your whole life has privacy built into it.
RBM: What makes Fastmail unique in the privacy space?
RS: When somebody is paying for Fastmail, our question is what can we do to make their experience better. Because we don’t think about the user being the product, we don’t monetize their information as something to make a profit on, and we have no incentive to go and circumvent their privacy.
So if you want privacy, you know we have no motive to betray you. But if you don’t care about privacy—first of all care about privacy—but if you don’t care about privacy, if you’re thinking I guess privacy is nice, but what I really want is good service—you still end up getting a better choice when you look at something that’s built on a concept on wanting to have privacy—like Fastmail.
RBM: I want to talk about the aliases feature because it’s super cool and definitely something that caught my eye. Can you talk a little bit about what they are and how they work?
RS: Aliases are just another email address on your account that you can use for different occasions. For example, I have an alias on my account that goes to both my wife and me, I use a different alias for interacting with open source communities than I do for friends and family, and I even use a different alias for my bills.
We should talk about email being like your credit card. If you give out your credit card everywhere and something goes wrong, you don’t know where your card was compromised. But, if you have a different credit card at every place you shop, when you start seeing fraudulent charges on the number you used with Gimbels, you know that Gimbels leaked your credit card data.
You cancel that card, and everything else keeps working. So, if you start getting email sent to you at your Gimbels email address from other vendors, then you know Gimbels is sending your email address around. So, you can cancel that email alias and stop receiving unwanted emails.
A lot of these things are little usability problems everywhere in life, but especially in email. Aliases, correctly applied, address a bunch of those problems.
RBM: Given the legacy of email, what do you see as the future?
RS: The first thing I should do is give a highly technical plug and mention JMAP, which is an internet protocol we developed here at Fastmail, and it’s meant to replace a bunch of the old technology for email with things that are newer, simpler, and more powerful. JMAP is a free standard that anybody can implement, and it interoperates with existing email technology so we can start building new features on newer technology.
Secondly, the future of email is better email. Firstly, breaking mail into different streams will make it better. Saying, here’s my pile of mail from my friends, here’s my mail from my family, here’s my work email. We need to find ways to let people effortlessly separate their mail.
The other thing that needs to get better is tiny messages. Sometimes I get an email, and I just want to type “yes,” then hit send—but that makes me the weirdo! We need mechanisms that let us get the things we want out of instant messaging and Facebook-style reactions – to let us interact in a simple, efficient way that doesn’t feel like we’re subverting the idea of what email is.
We’ve developed new technologies outside of email, but those technologies have their own problems. They’re offered in walled gardens that force you to only interact with people in that sphere of engagement – I chat with these friends on discord, and these friends on slack, and these people some other place. But email, I’m just on email. That’s the benefit we need to bring by folding these technologies together.
RBM: Fastmail talks a lot about being good internet citizens—can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that?
RS: Digital citizenship is a really interesting topic. When I was in third grade, we had a curriculum that included a class on citizenship, which teaches you how to be a good citizen. The topics that folded into good citizenship were:
- How was society meant to work?
- Why did we mean for it to work that way?
- Was that a good idea?
- Have we made good or bad decisions?
- What should we do about it?
- How do we make it stay good or stop being bad?
Digital citizenship is the same set of questions, but it’s about the internet. It’s not just about your online life—it’s about your connected life.
For Fastmail, our primary activities to make connected life better is by building tools that put people in charge of their own data to try and make our connected society better. The other is we take the connected technologies for this, and we give them away. We want other companies to be able to work together in the kind of interactions that we’re facilitating. We are working on our own podcast inside of Fastmail, which is called Digital Citizen. It’s about these questions.
RBM: Do you have anything we haven’t touched on that people should really know if they’re trying to stay safe online?
RS: I think the first thing is to think about privacy. You don’t have to get obsessed. You don’t have to delete all your accounts. You don’t have to switch to burner phones and stop communicating with your family because they’re only on Facebook. Just think about what information you’re sharing, if you’re comfortable sharing it, and if those services even need that information.
If we want to talk about email, it’s that your email address is your identity. Email is the way online services know who you are, and so you should think about how many identities you need. Most people need more than one—work, family, friends, bills, etc.
Separating these identities beyond just privacy can help you lead a life in which you compartmentalize your concerns intentionally and have a way to think about how you’re dealing with these aspects of your life.
1Password remembers all your passwords for you to help keep account information safe. Together with 1Password, we're bringing you this condensed interview; you can listen to the full interview with Ricardo Signes, or tune in to other episodes of Random But Memorable wherever you get your podcasts.