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How To Take Back Your Email

Leaving Gmail helped me stop censoring myself in ways I hadn’t noticed for years. Now if only I could trust that people would get my messages

Max Chafkin

Hillary, Ivanka, and Jared were right. No, not about that. Or that. And definitely not that. Just about the one thing, really: the utility of a private email system. Of course, Clintonemail.com proved disastrous to the former secretary of state’s image in 2016. (Ivanka and Jared’s use of ijkfamily.com has been far less headline-grabbing.) But while paying IT consultants to install Clintonesque servers in your basement can be a bad look politically, it has caught on among executives. In some circles, it’s become common to have what’s called “the Hillary setup.”

The security rationale for owning a private server is straightforward. The main way hackers break into email accounts is by phishing, sending links to fake login websites that trick you into giving away your password. Traditional email servers let you log in only through apps such as Outlook and Apple Mail, making them more or less impossible to phish.

Privacy is another draw. The server’s data can’t be tapped by, say, Google to form a sprawling psychological profile aimed at selling you stuff you don’t need. If the police want to read your emails, they have to come to your house with a court order. And if your private server is accidentally destroyed by accidentally falling in a lake before said order can be served, well, that’s accidentally that.

I’m not planning to commit any lakeworthy crimes, but stories about tech companies’ violations of privacy do have me thinking about a scenario that once seemed unimaginable: life without Gmail. Google, after all, has been repeatedly accused of improperly collecting user data. Earlier this year it paid $13 million to settle a class action over its Street View program’s scooping up personal information from people’s home Wi-Fi networks. (It denied any wrongdoing.) And yet I was still giving it the entirety of my inbox.

“You shouldn’t have to be in some sort of political or financial elite to have access to something like this,” says Giri Sreenivas. He’s an engineer who runs Helm, a startup in Bellevue, Wash., that aims to bring the Hillary setup to the rest of us. Sreenivas co-founded Helm three years ago because he was concerned about the ways the online services we use are also using us. “The internet was meant to be open and free and should allow anyone to participate as an equal member,” he says. “The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.” Sreenivas is quick to note that he doesn’t condone the use of private servers for diplomacy.

Helm’s beautifully packaged model—designed by the guy behind the Fitbit, it looks like the roof of a toy house—costs $499. Sreenivas’s software promised to manage it for me, including backing up an encrypted version of my server to the cloud, for $99 a year. (The first year is free.)

This spring, I started telling friends, family, and co-workers to send email to a new address at maxchafkin.com. My friends and officemates mostly just stared blankly. My mom called it “neat.” Nobody seemed to appreciate that I was about to try moving away from my primary mode of communication for the past 15 years.

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August 12, 2019

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