Private mail with Kolab Now

Swiss Post Office

© Lead Image © Yakobchuk,

© Lead Image © Yakobchuk,

Article from Issue 173/2015

The Kolab Now mail service offers one thing you won't get from mainstream cloud mail: no spying.

Today's Internet economy depends on users trading their privacy for services. In the United States, millions of people are active on Facebook, tagging themselves in photos every morning and before they go to sleep at night. Some users are willing to give their home address, email ID, and phone number to random stores just to get a two percent discount.

Internet mail services such as Gmail and capitalize on the lack of attention to privacy by scanning messages to gather information on their users and then using that information to get money from advertising customers. However, not everyone chooses convenience over privacy. Some users still care about keeping their communications private – both from government and from service vendors who want to profit from the personal information of their users.

The Kolab Now [1] hosted groupware service offers an alternative for users who want to keep their mail private. Kolab Now, a relaunch of the MyKolab service, is based on the open source Kolab groupware tool [2].

Kolab Now offers safe and secure email with a guarantee of no data mining. The parent company, Kolab Systems [3], makes its money the old-fashioned way: by charging the customer directly rather than selling customer information to third-party vendors. Additionally, the Kolab Now servers are located in ultra-private Switzerland, which provides natural protection from government intrusion.

More on Kolab

The Kolab groupware tool was originally developed for the German Federal Office of Information Security. Kolab, like most open source projects, offers a community edition that anyone can download and install on their own network. Kolab Systems also offers an enterprise edition, which comes with support.

Kolab Now is intended as the Kolab equivalent to Gmail. According to Kolab Systems CEO Georg Greve, "Kolab Now is an installation of Kolab Enterprise and offers email, calendar, notes, tasks, files, and more. The service targets SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and professionals, especially those who have trade secrets or deal in privileged information."

Some users have had their focus on privacy all along. "Lawyers, diplomats, private clinics, and other organizations have been using the service for some time now," explains Greve, "but of course there are also plenty of individuals who have moved their families or private communications onto the system."

Greve adds, "We've seen some users move from other mail services to Kolab Now. Typically the motives are a mixture of liking the service and professional requirements to safeguard customer, partner, or otherwise privileged information. Many people also just want to take back control over their own data, or they have personal motives, such as wanting to contribute to better technology for everyone through free and open source software."

The Kolab Now service runs on top of the recently released Kolab Enterprise 14 and comes with many new features. Improvements include an integrated note-taking application, allowing users to attach notes to email or keep them in dedicated notebooks. Other updates involve extensive tagging support for email, ToDo lists, and notes, all of which may now be labeled and searched with tags. A major makeover complements the featured upgrades; the Kolab web applications have been revamped with a beautifully crisp look and feel, accompanied by numerous usability improvements.

When asked about any notable people using Kolab, the company refused to tell except for naming those who have made public disclosure about using the service. Greve said, "Among them are Pamela Jones (Groklaw) or Jonathan Corbet ("


Kolab Systems located its business in Switzerland for a very important reason: Swiss laws emphasize privacy and don't support the kinds of secret snooping going on in North America and other parts of Europe.

Unlike the United States, Switzerland has no secret court proceedings. Swiss law provides "only one central point through which all requests for access need to go, which requires a Swiss judge to approve access to data on evidence of an actual crime (according to Swiss law) having been committed. If the secret service wanted access, it would have to go through that same process," explains Greve.

There is no such thing as a "gag order" in Switzerland. If there is an order from the court to hand over data about a user, the company cannot publicly report whose data is being requested because it may hamper the investigation and ruin the reputation of the individual under investigation, but the individual who is under investigation will know. Unlike US law, Swiss law has a requirement to notify people who are under investigation.

In the United States, it's a tug of war between companies and the government to release data on requests made by the government. In Switzerland, the government itself publishes anonymized statistics every year, including the grounds on which requests were granted by the court.

Greve says Kolab Now has a warrant canary in the privacy section on its site, so users will know immediately when the company receives a request, and under which paragraph. Additionally, if the privacy laws should change in Switzerland for some reason, Kolab Now has a built-in escape plan. If (and that's a big if) the Swiss government went rogue, Kolab Now users could simply take their entire data and vanish. They could potentially run it from their own servers hosted in some privacy-respecting nation.

Terms of Service

Users must accept the terms of service (ToS) before signing up for the services, which is typical with any service. However, Kolab Now has made it extremely easy to understand these terms; they have earned Class A rating from the ToSDR project [4], which aims to encourage providers to make their terms of service user friendly.

Unlike other services where your data is subject to "sharing" with third parties, Kolab Now makes it clear in their ToS that "This Service is subject to the national laws of Switzerland and we do our best to provide you with the maximum level of privacy in this legislation. That means there will be no access to your data by third parties without a duly authorized warrant issued by a Swiss judge."

Sounds fair. But, how protective, or invasive, are Swiss laws themselves? Kolab Now has done an incredible job at explaining under what circumstances they do share data with the Swiss government under the country's surveillance framework, which is part of their telecommunication laws. Because the framework is quite comprehensive, you must have a look at it [5]. In a nutshell, under these laws, Kolab Now is required to provide information only if there is an ongoing criminal investigation against any user. A court order from a judge is required for access of any data; there must be strong evidence of suspicion or crime. There's no fishing for "could be" or "would be" criminals.

Police can obtain certain information without any court order if any user is under investigation, but that information is limited to a user's name, address, profession, telephone number, IP address, and kind of account/service; it doesn't include any metadata or content of the communication. If you compare this policy to that of other countries, it seems the Swiss system is extremely privacy respecting, and your data with Kolab Now may be safer than with other providers.

Kolab Now is not a free (of cost) service; however, it costs less than Netflix charges every month – around $4.99 per individual email account [6].

Aaron J. Seigo, a noted KDE developer who recently joined Kolab told me, "The free services aren't really free: they process and scan all your communication to create revenue through advertising. You are the product on those services."

Greve adds, "The price for 'free' services may be zero money, but it is not zero value. The so-called 'stalker economy' is highly profitable and drives companies worth billions of dollars. The purchasing value of companies is often determined by the number of user profiles they have to bring to the table. That level of profit is only possible if the value of the information is much higher than the cost of providing the service. So what you have, in a way, is an economy based on a currency where only one side knows its actual value. Much like the glass beads used in barter trade centuries ago."

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