Interview with Simon Specka from ZenMate
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got your start in the VPN industry? What is your title at ZenMate?
My name is Simon and I am a co-founder and managing director of ZenMate. My first touch with the VPN industry dates back to 2013, when I returned to Berlin after travelling around the world. While I was travelling, I experienced difficulty connecting to my favorite websites, as well as keeping my internet connection safe when using free WiFi hotspots. This is where the idea of building a VPN service came from.
Can you introduce ZenMate a bit to our readers? How did ZenMate get started and how did it get where it is today?
ZenMate was founded in February 2013 by my friend Markus and myself in Manchester, UK. It was bootstrapped for 4 and half months at the University of Manchester Innovation Centre (UMIC) where it won a startup award.
The first product was launched after we moved the company to Berlin. The ZenMate for Chrome was a great success – we gained 100.000 users in only 2 weeks, which led to strong traction and public awareness. We then began to expand our operations, team, and platforms.
ZenMate achieved being the best VPN with the best platform variety due to rolling out clients for Chrome, Opera, Firefox, iOS, Android, Win, and Mac. By the end of 2014, we had around 7.5M sign-ups and now we are proud of an incredible number of 42M users around the world.
ZenMate is a well-known VPN service, what do you think contributed to ZenMate success?
We are the inventors and vertical market leaders of VPN Browser Extensions. We have invented this new platform and have been the first ones to put a heavy weight VPN Solution into a small and lightweight Browser Extension that is easy to use and accessible for the mass market.
Of course, we are also very proud of having built the most trusted VPN brand in the world. We have millions of active users who use our VPN on a daily basis and trust us with their online security on public Wi-Fi hotspots, in hotels, airports etc. Furthermore, we enable millions of users both in the western world as well as in developing countries to access the Internet in a free, unrestricted and safe way.
We could not have done this alone – we are proud of the awesome team that has spent thousands of hours building the best solution possible. We also have great support from millions of users around the globe who helped us on our mission to make the Internet free and unrestricted. For this support, we are very grateful and also proud of.
What sets you apart from your competitors?
First of all, it’s very important that as a user you are able to trust the company and the people behind the service. If you choose the wrong company you might experience that this service that you choose to protect your privacy is actually making money by selling your information instead. At ZenMate we do not do this, as we use a premium model to finance all operations.
We have also developed highly specialised and proprietary unblocking technology recently. This means that it makes it super difficult for governments or others to detect and block our service, making us much more resilient and reliable than most other VPN providers. This feature enables us to offer free Internet to all the people living in countries where censorship is a substantial issue.
VPNs need to be a mix of performance and security – how does ZenMate achieve this?
We have built an extensive server infrastructure in the past 5 years, that allows us to offer users the best performance possible – there is a minimal impact on download and upload speeds while our users are browsing the Internet with ZenMate turned on. Talking about security, we follow the newest trends in the security protocols to make sure our users’ data is 100% encrypted, without any possibility to be intercepted.
How would you describe your typical user? Which features are the most important to them?
A typical user in the VPN industry is a male in the age group of 18-35 years. This is not different for ZenMate, although we see an increasing number of female users and also users of older age groups in the past few years. The main reason behind this is that more and more people nowadays are very careful about their privacy and the whole segment is slowly moving from tech-savvy users to the general audience.
The most important features are enhanced privacy and security, allowing users to browse the Internet with a complete peace of mind, together with a possibility to access blocked websites from anywhere in the world.
What are some of the largest security threats to individual internet users? How do you help protect these users?
It all starts with a weak network encryption. Be it not only when you connect to the Internet via open WiFi networks such as the ones at cafés and airports, where your connection is completely liable to be intercepted. Also, networks with obsolete protocols like WEP are a huge security threat nowadays. Last, but not least, an ambition of governments and Internet service providers to store all the browsing data including very personal information is a big issue that we are trying to solve. ZenMate is protecting users against all of these, making their communication completely invisible no matter where they connect to the Internet.
Why is privacy today so important, and what do you think are the primary threats to privacy for ordinary individuals using the internet?
The internet is a great invention that makes our lives much easier in many aspects. More and more people are connecting to it every year through different devices, both from home and work. But the Internet network itself doesn’t work independently from different public and private subjects. Hackers, ISPs, and even governments are snooping on user’s activity, and they use their personal information to achieve their own profits.
What is ZenMate’s opinion of data retention?
ZenMate is a German company and as Germany is known to have one of the best Internet privacy and security laws in the world, we are bound to very strict data privacy rules. We have very strict privacy policies inside the company and follow these rules rigorously.
We do not track our users’ behaviour online while they use our service. Also being a trustworthy German company and legal entity, our users can be sure to know who’s behind the company.
In many VPN companies, it is not clear who is behind the service and who is running the operations. As a German entity that’s bound to strict German data privacy laws it’s a different case with ZenMate. We operate in a transparent way, so our users can be assured to have chosen the best and the world’s most trustworthy service currently available on the market. This is what we stand for with our brand and our names.
China recently banned VPNs and streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu work diligently to block VPN access – how does ZenMate handle these kinds of opponents?
China has been very proactive in blocking VPN providers for many years now and the same applies to major streaming services. Even though they are stepping up their effort every year and they make their blocking systems more and more robust, we at ZenMate are very successful in addressing this challenge, thanks to our great engineering team and internal systems that we have built in past 5 years.
VPNs are extremely popular throughout Europe and Asia, and now we see that VPNs are really starting to penetrate the US market. Why do you think this is?
It is mostly a result of current events happening in the US, such as the situation around Edward Snowden, new laws making it possible for Internet service providers to store and resell user’s data, or the recent ’net neutrality’ movement. With a big media coverage of such topics, more Americans are starting to realize how important their privacy is, and they are pro-actively looking for solutions that will take care of their Internet security.
Where do you see VPN use going over the next few years?
Consumer VPN technologies will likely move in the direction of personalized consumer gateway solutions that act as a gatekeeper to people. Online privacy and security products will shield away threats before they even hit the device or endpoint.
Are there any new developments for ZenMate that you would like to share with our readers?
The most exciting items on our roadmap at the moment are ZenMate Ultimate and the Identity Shield. Let me explain each of them in a little more detail, as we believe both developments will change the way how customers understand Internet security products.
Ultimate is an extension of the ZenMate VPN service. As the market leader in making privacy and security simple to understand and even more simple to use, we have created an easy method, coupled with simple instruction, to get this same level of security and privacy on devices that are outside the standard. With our solution, a person with limited technical knowledge can deploy ZenMate VPN onto platforms as diverse as their smart TV, through to their smart fridge. Ultimate can even be deployed on most gaming consoles, allowing console gamers the same level of access and privacy experiences by our PC gamers.
Identity Shield is a new feature of the ZenMate suite. Utilising market leading techniques, Identity Shield monitors the dark web and stolen data repositories, looking for information that could compromise our customers. In its initial stages, Identity Shield will focus on email and password combinations, highlighting to the user whether their identity on one or more platforms has been compromised. Over time, Identity Shield will expand to encompass Credit Cards, Social Security Numbers, Passport details and other highly personal data.
Lastly, tell our readers what are the three main reasons why users should use a VPN?
Many people use ZenMate in order to access websites that are blocked to them but it is important that these people also educate themselves about the security and privacy benefits of using a VPN. One should never access public WiFi without using a VPN since it is easy for someone to steal personal information – such as passwords and credit card details – when connected to an unsecured network. Additionally, since government surveillance schemes are becoming more intense, using a VPN for privacy is more important than ever. Last, but not least, is to have an unrestricted access to any information on the Internet, even if it is blocked or censored.