Proton is launching encrypted documents to compete with Google Docs

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Yen says Proton has been using the system internally for the past month and is now ready to roll it out to consumers. “I think it’s relatively good,” says Yen. To compete with other online document editors, the team also built in collaborative functionality from the start, he says. This includes real-time editing by multiple people, commenting, and showing when someone else is looking at a document.

In April, Proton acquired encrypted note-taking app Standard Notes, which is a separate product from Docs. “It’s not really ‘taking Standard Notes and putting it into Proton,'” says Yen, adding that the encryption architecture of the two was different, and that Proton Docs is “more or less a ground-up, clean build of Proton’s ecosystem on our software stack.” (WIRED was unable to test Docs before it launched).

The big difference that Proton is adding compared to Google Docs is encryption – something that is challenging to do at scale and becomes even more difficult when multiple people are editing the same document at the same time. Yen says that not only the content of the documents is being encrypted, but also other elements such as keystrokes, mouse movements, and file names and paths.

The company, which announced last month that it was moving to nonprofit status, uses open source encryption, and Yen says encryption key exchange and synchronization across multiple users were needed to create the Docs system. Part of this was possible, Yen says, because last year the company added version history for documents stored in its Drive system, on which Docs is built.

There are relatively few—if any—major end-to-end encrypted document editors online. Other existing services, which WIRED has not tried, include CryptPad and various note-taking or Notepad-style apps. There are also apps that encrypt files locally on your machine, such as Crypty and Anytype.

Recently, Proton has been moving quickly to launch new encrypted products – adding cloud storage, a VPN, a password manager, and calendars alongside its core ProtonMail email service. The company has also faced scrutiny over some of the information it provides to law enforcement, such as recovery emails added to accounts. It changed some of its policies in 2021 after being ordered to collect certain user metadata. Although the company is based outside the US and the EU, it still responds to thousands of Swiss law enforcement requests.

Ultimately, Yen says, the company is trying to offer as many private alternatives as possible to Big Tech services, particularly Google. “Whatever Google has, we have to build that too. That’s the roadmap. But the challenge, of course, is the order in which you do it,” Yen says. “In some ways, bringing privacy to a more mainstream audience requires going farther afield, trying different things, and being a little more adventurous in the things we build and the things we launch.”

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