[Startup Bharat] This IIT Guwahati alumnus has built a secure email platform to protect user privacy

Guwahati-based Letter is focused on building products and services that enhance the privacy of the user. Its first product is a secure email platform that protects user privacy.
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Sunit Kumar Nandi, Founder, Techno Digital Media, always found it challenging to get a safe and secure email software provider. The 26-year-old tech entrepreneur realised that emails were not securely stored, the terms and conditions often stated that conversations could be available to third parties, there were spam problems, there was a problem with email deliverability and limited access to features you could use on your mailbox. 

So, the IIT Guwahati alumnus decided to fix the problem by himself. He established Letter in September 2020 in Guwahati, Assam, as a part of Techno Digital Media, which was started in 2012. The startup is now building products and services that enhance the privacy of the user. Its first product is a Mailcow-based email provider. 

Hosted in France and using relays in Switzerland and Iceland, Letter aims to create a secure email platform to protect user privacy. 

Founder of Letter, Sunit Kumar Nandi

How does the platform work?

Sunit says, “Our first flagship service is privacy-first email, which solves the problem of email communications being treated as an afterthought in a world where email is the backbone of everything.” 

“Most big email providers often mine email data of their customers, whether they are paying or not, and the less popular ones are poorly maintained to the point that email deliverability and spam is a major issue. Many providers do not offer standard ways to access mailboxes and force you to use their own apps. Some impose vendor lock-in, making it next to impossible to transfer your data in case you want to move to a different provider. Letter aims to solve these issues,” he adds.

Letter offers email hosting that is encrypted per mailbox and per organisation, making it impossible to mine conversations as an email services operator. Letter adheres to all Internet and email standards so that you can access your email, calendar, and contacts on any email client and device of your choice. 

It also offers the option to import and export your email data, so that you are truly in control of your own data. The platform also ensures state-of-the-art connection encryption support with TLS 1.3 and a minimum of 256-bit key strength and use TLS (SSL) certificates European Certificate Authority located in Scandinavia (BuyPass). 

Not compromising on security

“Apart from the mail encryption, the hardware nodes (servers) hosting email data are set up with full-disk encryption, which provides protection against cyber and physical attacks. Letter also includes priority support for annual plan customers, and we go to the extent of setting up DNS records and optimising for email deliverability, which other email providers usually do not offer, even on the higher end plans,” says Sunit. 

He adds that general email hosting is scalable by design, but the way it is implemented in practice makes it hard to scale, even for big providers. Every provider out there is trying to scale email, but in their own proprietary and non-standard manner. Letter is trying to scale using open-source software and in a standards-compliant manner, which is the way email is supposed to be.

“Letter does not compromise convenience over security. It uses indexing that helps customers to find their emails through the search bar, which many privacy-oriented providers still fail to offer. Letter adds an additional encryption layer over and above email encryption that not only secures emails but also the infrastructure from cyberattacks,” says Sunit. 

Team and business model 

The core team consists of Sunit, Manish Gehlot, and Mahbub Hasan. Manish is the security and optimisation expert, and has spent several years of his career in the Internet privacy services industry, with VPN operators like AzireVPN and PrivateVPN and privacy operating system and software maker e.foundation. He is a former Free Software Foundation (FSF) member and continues to be an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) member. 

Mahbub looks after Letter’s UI and UX design of software and the website, making accessibility and usability better. Launched in November 2020, Letter currently is in its beta stage and has over 50 subscribers.  

The team follows a B2B model where it charges users by the disk space and the number of outgoing emails per day. The plans start at Rs 1,320 per year for 4GB storage and goes up to Rs 3,520 per year for 50 GB storage. 

Anyone who requires more storage and higher sending limits can request a bigger plan by contacting the support team. The startup said all plans include priority support and complimentary Bitwarden password manager apart from the usual email features. One of the company’s prominent client is Kaksha.ai (DigiPathshala Pvt Ltd), a startup from Gurugram. 

Sunit adds the team is operating with a net profit and is sustainable at present. He says they don’t need to burn cash to gain user traction.

“From a privacy-oriented business standpoint, this is desirable: you would not want to compromise on user privacy with profit-making as it goes against the very goal of the business,” says Sunit. 

Letter owns or leases the physical servers from data centres directly and adds them to its custom-built private cloud, cutting out middlemen like resellers and public cloud providers, further reducing the cost. 

Competition and future 

“We are also able to add, remove, and consolidate servers according to the capacity required on our private cloud and we can grow as slow or as fast as possible with no downtime. We have the best people for the job on our team and we work remotely. This cuts down on unnecessary expenses like office space rent, commute time, and fuel expense. Also, having the right people on the job ensures high productivity and the work gets done faster,” says Sunit. 

Letter currently competes directly with Switzerland-based ProtonMail, which was founded by CERN scientists. ProtonMail’s infrastructure resides in Europe's most secure data centre, underneath 1,000 metres of solid rock.

However, ProtonMail charges per mailbox, while Letter charges for disk space and the number of outgoing emails. Sunit says ProtonMail has no full-text search available for emails. However, Letter allows full-text search of emails even if encryption is enforced. 

Speaking of their future plans, Sunit says, “Our goal is to become a big player among privacy email and business email hosting providers and to be the very best in the service that we offer. From there onwards, I plan to spin off Letter into a separate business entity to develop more products and services that enhance privacy of people in the digital realm.” 
Edited by Megha Reddy

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