Meet Robert Knapp, CEO – CyberGhost
Cyberghost is the best known Privacy as a Service company in the world. Since the company started in 2004 with a few users, it has meanwhile millions using the product.
And thousands of new registered accounts every day are showing, that privacy is as important as it’s never been before.
We talked to Robert Knapp, CEO of Cyberghost, about privacy, the Snowden Leaks and mobile browsing.
Robert, please tell our users something about your career: What did you do before CybergGhost, were you always into the privacy business?
Before I co-founded CyberGhost, I was in the software publishing business. And I was not even in the privacy business as we started CyberGhost. First, CyberGhost VPN was for us a tool to access blocked content through our proxy-servers abroad. It took us a while to learn from our customers that we are running a Privacy as a Service company, because people used and still use the product mainly (87%) to protect their privacy.
Cyberghost is a well known player on the software market since 2004. Was there any specific reason, you founded the service, or is there a story behind it regarding yourself? How were the early days?
The first version of CyberGhost was built to watch YouTube videos in Germany. Even today, more than 60% of the 1000 most viewed YouTube clips are blocked in Germany. The blocking of YouTube videos in this country is part of an ongoing dispute between the video sharing platform and the GEMA, a performance rights organization in Germany.
We did not even have a single own server, because we “crawled” for available free proxies and established a connection to them. That resulted mostly in awful connection speed or unavailable servers. That’s why we started to setup an own VPN server park.
Back then, we had two people working half-time on the project between 2004 and 2011. After we moved CyberGhost 2011 from Germany to Romania and founded the CyberGhost SRL, we grew up to 35 full-time employees.
What changed during the last 12 years on the market? Is it more difficult to run a VPN service today due to governmental restrictions or privacy regulations?
It was never easy to run a Privacy as a Service company because you always face technical challenges and compliance issues with the law.
As CyberGhost VPN is constantly growing, the technical challenges don’t stop. We had to develop the capability to handle a growing number of servers in order to accommodate that growth. Our current system is based on performance tuning and hardware scalability and can now easily expand to accommodate heavier loads. Our in-house developed CyberGhost server admin interface allows us to administrate servers from a single access point. The whole system assimilates new servers automatically like a Cyborg ship.
Regarding governmental restrictions we see two different directions:
First, the governments that, since a while already showed a behavior disorder when it comes to privacy or other basic human rights, are getting worse. China, Turkey, Eritrea or North Korea for example, increased their effort on shutting down free press or the privacy rights of their citizens.
On the other side, we have seen positive trends in the United States and the European Union. The Edward Snowden revalations combined with the political pressure on Silicon Valley to implement backdors in widely used hard- and software, lead to a new „privacy movement” headed by companies like Apple. That is a very good trend for US. And in the European Union we see for example Maximilian Schrems, an Austrian privacy activist who has founded a group called “Europe versus Facebook” and has initiated two lawsuits involving Facebook. On the 6th of October 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled for example that the Safe Harbour framework is invalid because under EU law, data-sharing with countries deemed to have lower privacy standards, including the US, are prohibited. In Romania, where CyberGhost is incorporated, we saw lately a Constitutional Court decision that made again clear that the Romanian Intelligence Service is not allowed to survey Romanian citizens and that surveilling Romanian citizens through the police for example requires at any moment a court order. These are all good trends for the EU, showing that our principally higher standards for privacy result in the right court decisions, once somebody fights for it.
The Snowden Leaks got abroad in 2013. Was that a huge boost for CyberGhost and did you get the impression, that the needs for an anonym browsing grew bigger after that? Maybe there was a learning effect in the user behavior…?
We did not see a huge boost for CyberGhost VPN and I doubt that there was any big boost for the VPN industry in general. The Snowden Leaks revealed that we live in the age of mass surveillance, which means that everything that is not encrypted and transferred through an internet connection is captured and stored by several intelligence services. But it is one thing to know it and another thing to experience or feel it, so you would change the situation. So, it will take more time until the use of VPNs and encrypted communication and file storage will be a mass market phenomenon. And also the industry has to improve. Encryption technology, no matter where it is used, is still far away from being super-user-friendly. We are working on that and we are getting better every day, so does the adoption of crypto-technology like VPNs, or encrypted messaging, blockchain-technology and so on.
The immediate positive effect of the Snowden Leaks was the fact that from there on, everybody understood why you would need a VPN. Before Snowden, people and media always referred to VPNs as something suspicious, build for people that have something to hide. Now, after everybody has something to hide, the use case is clear and we do not longer have to educate people and media about the advantages of using a VPN. That helped a lot.
Were you surprised yourself by the information and the magnitude of the monitoring level of private persons by intelligence services all over the world? Is the threat, created by criminal organizations maybe bigger for the carless user?
I was shocked about the magnitude of mass surveillance, not really surprised that they do it in general. But I was shocked about their abilities to mass surveil almost everybody who is connected to the internet. And I am still angry about governments that do not protect their citizens from being surveilled.
The threat, created by a criminal organization (if we don’t call an intelligence service that breaks the laws also simply a criminal organization) is not bigger, but as an affected user, you will feel the impact immediately. For example, by losing money because bank details were stolen or by being exposed or blackmailed because private information was disclosed. The impact of mass surveillance will shape our whole society in a negative way, if we don’t make it stop. But that will take a bit more time to take effect, so we do not recognize it as a thread.
Is anonymous browsing for mobile devices more important the next years compared to steady devices and are there technical differences or challenges for you to solve?
Everything is more important for mobile devices compared to steady devices. The world simply gets mobile and more and more internet connections happen through hotspots instead of cable connections. That changes the whole game. Hotspots are more vulnerable than cable connections and mobile devices take over more and more roles in payment transactions as a wallet and for proof of identity. So, mobile devices are getting an interesting target for both kind of attackers, intelligence services and hackers.
So it is not necessarily the need for anonymous browsing that will drive the growth of VPNs on mobile devices. And is simply insane to login to a public hotspot without a VPN connection. This is like posting your personal data on a hacker forum.
Speaking of the mobile market: Sometimes it seems, that mobile users aren’t so interested in privacy as they would be when surfing the web with a pc? Isn’t that inconsistent – is there an explanation in your eyes?
Maybe it is not inconsistent. A Desktop PC is usually used at a place that gives you privacy by design, might it be your home or your office. So that might be the place where the websites you visit are the websites that you also want to keep private. While on your mobile phone, hanging out with your friends or sitting in a bus, you might not visit these sites because your neighbor in the bus could anyway invade your privacy easily by simply watching over your shoulders.
The other thing is that the lower adaption rate of VPNs on mobile devices could also be affected by the general state of the VPN industry. While we already have very advanced Windows apps on the market, we do not have really good and easy to use iOS or Android apps. The industry, including us, focused too long on the desktop market. At CyberGhost, we are changing that right now. At the beginning of the year we equipped everyone at CyberGhost with a flagship mobile phone to “eat our own dog food” and switched to a mobile first strategy. As a result, we will launch mid-April a new iOS app that is a breakthrough for the use of VPN-technology on an iPhone.
Is there a way users or interested partners can get in touch with your company personally? Are there upcoming events, where CyberGhost is participating or exhibiting the next months?
The best way to find out is to follow us on Twitter or Facebook. The next event will be the MVP Academy in Bucharest, Romania where I am part of the jury and mentoring team for young startups (http://mvpacademy.co/mentors/).
Usually we are attending events like the Defcon, CCC Congres or similar events.
Are there any upcoming features and changes for the future you can already talk about, so that our readers get an idea of where CyberGhost will be in a few years?
Right now, we are focused on launching the sixth generation of clients for CyberGhost VPN. First will be the new iOS app, then the new Windows client, then Android and finally a new Mac client.
After we have done that, we will implement CyberGhost’s so called “Smart Technology” into our system. That means that CyberGhost will change and propose settings and servers based on the use case. Meaning, at the moment you login to a public hotspot and CyberGhost automatically launches the right profile and connects you to the right server to protect and encrypt your connection. If you type in a certain website in your browser and this website is blocked in your country, CyberGhost launches automatically the right profile and connects you to the right server to load the website.
We are also constantly improving our API that allows any third party to use our VPN technology inside their own applications or even build a VPN service on top of our technology. This business unit of being the “Amazon AWS for VPN” is growing and will be an important part of our success story.
We are also working on future projects like a hardware based VPN home solution that will allow users to control their whole home network by simply plugin in a hardware device between network and router. Another project is a peer-to-peer extension of CyberGhost VPN where users can share their IPs with others or an Open Source CyberGhost VPN server that can be installed and managed by any trusted organization or partner while earning Bitcoins from our network. We work also on concepts for encrypted messaging or peer-to-peer encrypted file hosting based on blockchain technology.
So, there is a lot more to come for us and our users in the next few years.
Surely you use other software and apps to improve your digital life except of CyberGhost? What is your favorite one and why you like it so much?
As I am lately very interested in Bitcoin and the disruptive potential of blockchain technology in general, I started the experiment to use Bitcoins as a currency and pay as much as possible for my private day by day expenses with Bitcoins. I finally settled with the Xapo Bitcoin Wallet combined with the Xapo Debit Card. You can open an account on xapo.com in 10 minutes, purchasing Bitcoins takes one or two days and the Debit Card arrived after one week. And now I can spend Euros or even Romanian Leu and withdraw it automatically from my Bitcoin wallet. Or I spend directly Bitcoins wherever merchants accept it. That was my personal “Proof of Concept” that Bitcoin already works in 2016. It still needs improvement, it is still not flawless, its volatility is still a drawback, but it is fun and definitely usable.
Meetings, congresses and deadlines: What makes you come done after a stressful week in the dynamic software sector? Music, sports, meditation,…?
It is definitely watching FC St. Pauli playing football. Then I enjoy the cultural and geographical advantages of living in the vibrant capital of Romania. Bucharest offers a lot of good theater plays, concerts and restaurants. And the location between the mountains and the sea is perfect. I can spend my weekends within a short range either in the Carpathian Mountains or at the Black Sea.
Last but not least: What are the best reasons you would tell an undecided user, to convince him using the CyberGhost service? What differs the service from other vpn software?
CyberGhost is not a VPN company. We are running a VPN network, but we are a Privacy as a Service company. We care about that and this what differentiates us from a simple VPN company. We don’t hide our operations behind a letterbox company and we are very transparent as we have been the first in the industry to publish a transparency report. CyberGhost runs a free service, so customers can try before they buy and even then, they get a 30 days money back guarantee. We constantly invite NGOs or individuals into our headquarters to inspect our source codes and server settings. The ISO 27001 and ISO 9001 certifications are also a trust seal for the way we manage privacy. I do not know any other company in our industry that is more open and transparent than we are. When running a service that provides anonymity and privacy, we as the service provider, must be visible and transparent.