In the Business of Trust: Co-Founder Robert Knapp Shares How CyberGhost Helped Pioneer Privacy-as-a-Service with a Complete VPN Solution

In the Business of Trust: Co-Founder Robert Knapp Shares How CyberGhost Helped Pioneer Privacy-as-a-Service with a Complete VPN Solution

TL; DR: Based in Bucharest, the heart of Romania’s growing tech market, CyberGhost provides online privacy, freedom, and security to more than 20 million users worldwide. Founded in 2011, the company’s VPN ensures connections are encrypted so users can maintain anonymity, keep data safe from hackers, and access geo-restricted content. Whether they’re signing in to an online banking account, accessing wifi at a coffee shop, or combatting government censorship, CyberGhost is granting users all over the world the power to connect securely.

When it comes to virtual private networks, CyberGhost Co-Founder Robert Knapp has identified two distinct eras: “Before Snowden” and “After Snowden.”

Before Edward Joseph Snowden exposed top-secret NSA information about mass surveillance practices in the US, Robert said virtual private networks operated under a critical eye.

“If you would run a VPN service, people would constantly say, ‘Guys, come on — why are you doing that? At the end of the day, you’re hiding online identities, and you make them anonymous so they can do shady stuff. Be honest,’” Robert said.

Headshot of CyberGhost Co-Founder Robert Knapp and company logo

Prior to the Edward Snowden leaks, CyberGhost Co-Founder Robert Knapp said VPNs were often met with skepticism.

Robert and his team always pushed back. “We explained that we were doing it for privacy and security reasons,” he said. “I don’t share the contents of my fridge with the world, you know? When I go home in the evening, I close my blinds because I want to enjoy a few hours of privacy in my own home.”

The same logic applied to the web. But, even when Robert spelled it out, people remained skeptical — that is, until Snowden came along and changed everything.

“For the first time in history, the whole world could see the extent to which mass surveillance is used — not only by intelligence services and state organizations, but by companies, hackers, and others trying to do you harm,” Robert said. “They spy on you, monitor your behavior, and monetize your data.”

The revelation spurred a public discussion around internet freedom, and Robert found he no longer needed to defend himself. “It became pretty clear why we were doing what we were doing,” he said.

Gain Access to Censored and Geo-Restricted Content

Though the company now provides a critical service, its origin story is refreshingly lighthearted. “We didn’t plan to start a privacy-as-a-service company,” Robert said. “In 2008, we were just a bunch of guys building software in the German tech space who simply wanted to watch Netflix.”

Netflix wasn’t available in Germany because of geo-blocking, a technique that prevents internet users in certain countries or locations from accessing products and services around the globe. Since geolocation software determines the geographical location of a person or device by means of their IP address, the group developed a web crawler to search for free proxies and lists of US IP services they could use to circumnavigate the system.

“We talked about the service with a lot of friends, and they all wanted it,” Robert said. “Back then, I was running a software publishing company in Germany, so we simply boxed the product and sold it.”

Graphic depicting internet freedom

CyberGhost is a strong supporter of civil liberties, including the fight against censorship in non-democratic countries.

It wasn’t long before the team took the operation a step further. “The proxies were not reliable and often unavailable,” Robert said. “We weren’t sure who was hosting them or what they did with the data.”

The solution was obvious, and the team began to operate their own servers before officially becoming CyberGhost, a comprehensive VPN provider. With CyberGhost VPN, there’s a carefully encrypted tunnel placed between your device and the company’s VPN servers that cannot be decrypted. While the service still allows users in countries with restrictive governments to connect with the outside world, it also offers plenty of other benefits.

“Now, clients can do much more than just stream content,” Robert said. “They can protect their identities, protect themselves from the dangers of public wifi, and more.”

Protecting Internet Users in a World Where Privacy Reigns Supreme

CyberGhost is committed to protecting user privacy and will never observe, record, log, or store data. “At the end of the day, we are in the business of trust,” Robert said. “People have to trust us with their data and their behaviors — and you have to do something to earn that trust.”

To that end, the company publishes a transparency report detailing requests it has received from authorities to disclose individual users’ personal data concerning suspected offenses carried out through the VPN. Due to the company’s strict no-logs policy, it cannot provide user data to those who request it, as no user data records exist.

The company is also as transparent as possible regarding the identities of its team members.

“How can you trust someone you don’t even know?” Robert asked. “Of the top five VPN providers, we are the only one with a team page. You can also see we’re in Bucharest under the European Union — a good legal environment.”

Graphic depicting the value of privacy

Become invisible: The CyberGhost VPN keeps digital activities private so no organization can trace your digital footsteps.

Robert said CyberGhost is selling a philosophy rather than a feature set. “We are not protecting devices; we are protecting people who are using different devices in their day-to-day lives,” he said. “If you think about human life in the next few years, it’s pretty obvious we will continue using technology in every aspect of our lives.”

As homes become smarter through increasing dependence on AI, customers will likely eliminate some of their last opportunities to disconnect. Robert recently performed an experiment where a group of friends stayed in a “smart” apartment for a weekend. There were no cameras, just applications that tracked smart home data sent to a civil rights organization in Romania. Robert asked the organization to write a story based on the data to predict what went on in the apartment that weekend.

“They did that, and believe me, it was scary,” Robert said. “There were one or two things that weren’t right, but otherwise it was exactly what happened in the apartment.”

Encryption Technology Ensures Data Privacy, Even on Public Wifi

Mobile technology has taken the world by storm, and people are connecting to public wifi hotspots more frequently than ever. In 2018, the number of public hotspots was estimated at 279 million and is projected to rise to 454 million by 2020.

While hotspots are a major on-the-go convenience, they’re also a target for hackers. In some cases, hackers will create a wifi hotspot with a name that’s similar to the one you trust, such as a coffee shop or hotel. In others, they may provide a strong wifi signal to interfere with the connection between a user and the legitimate signal. Either way, your personal data is exposed once you’re connected.

“We see more and more wifi hotspots popping up in cities all over the world,” Robert said. “If you’re on wifi, you may be in an unsecured environment, and the safest thing you can do is use a VPN.”

Graphic depicting safe use of wifi through CyberGhost

A carefully encrypted tunnel between your device and CyberGhost’s servers allows you to surf the web from anywhere.

When connected to CyberGhost, even if you access unencrypted public wifi, all network data — including instant messages, passwords, downloads, and banking transactions — are entirely protected and private.

Setting up automatic wifi protection is a breeze. Once CyberGhost detects a new private or public wifi connection, a message box appears to determine whether the user would like protection once, always, or never. Alternatively, users can set default actions for all connections with the tap of a finger. Adjustable settings are also included, such as the ability to block malicious websites, filter ads, prevent online tracking, and set a preference for encrypted HTTPS connections.

A Privacy Experience Centered Around Customer Relationships

CyberGhost’s goal is to ensure the best privacy experience possible.

“Security’s not always a good thing for usability,” Robert said. “If you drive your car, you use a seatbelt to protect you. It’s not always comfortable, but it’s a compromise. When you talk about online security, you have to make compromises regarding usability.”

Robert said CyberGhost fights daily to minimize security’s effect on usability. “The connection should be as smooth as possible,” he said. “Our designers, technicians, and developers spend a lot of time under the hood to improve speed and connectivity.”

In terms of product development, the company places heavy emphasis on client feedback. “One of the big differences between CyberGhost and a lot of our competition is we know more about our customers,” Robert said. “We put the users in the center of what we do and really try to listen to them.”

The team has a slate of features in the works born from those conversations. “We are a passionate team in that we’re trying to deliver the best services that we can while working on future technology,” Robert said. “Right now, we are experimenting with rolling out our own datacenters and playing around with a decentralized VPN based on blockchain.”

In a post-Snowden tech environment, CyberGhost is stepping up to help citizens reclaim control over their private data — even when governments won’t. To that end, the company is staying true to its mission to ensure digital freedom and safety.

Christine Preusler

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