Proton, known for its privacy-centric email service Proton Mail, announced at the end of 2023 that it would help raise money for controversial group Bellingcat, a documented proxy British intelligence operation, through its annual Lifetime Account Charity Fundraiser.

An organization jump started by Eliot Higgins with the help of western funding, Bellingcat describes itself as “independent” and touts its “open source investigations” as sophisticated procedures its journalists use to uncover the truth. In reality, as I noted in previous analysis for Propaganda in Focus, Bellingcat “has ultimately worked to protect mainstream news narratives about the wars in Syria and Ukraine, including labelling research critical of the western-backed and terrorist-turned-humanitarian White Helmets in Syria as… ‘disinformation.’”

Indeed, the Grayzone’s Kit Klarenberg and David Miller reported on emails where journalist Paul Mason refers to Bellingcat as “intel service input by proxy.” Klarenberg has also uncovered other materials, including emails, that suggest direct collaboration between Bellingcat and Western intelligence bodies.

When questioned as to why it was supporting Bellingcat through its fundraiser on X (formerly Twitter), Proton responded:

‘Recipients are nominated by the Proton community and selected based on community feedback. Proton doesn’t nominate the recipients.

Recipients cannot be changed after the raffle begins and the fact that some find Bellingcat controversial was not known beforehand. In truth, in today’s polarized world, it’s almost impossible to be completely uncontroversial, but we do aim to be as neutral as possible. More details here:’

Likewise, when I asked Proton about its choice to support Bellingcat over email, I received the following reply:

‘Proton’s annual fundraisers support a wide range of organisations, which this year included Bellingcat. Organisations are nominated by our community, and are chosen based on community feedback. Based on our research and relying on trustworthy sources, Bellingcat appears to be an independent investigative outlet not tied to one government, and receives funding from a variety of sources.’

Proton’s X account and email replies may well be representing circumstances surrounding the fundraiser honestly. Indeed, as per its fundraising announcement in November 2023, Proton asked for community input as to who the beneficiaries of the then-upcoming fundraiser would be.

And Bellingcat does receive fundraising from a number of sources, but many of these sources only raise concerns about whether Bellingcat can be “independent,” as Proton claims. As an example, Bellingcat has received from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a CIA front group. Namely, as I described previously in Propaganda in Focus, the NED is a:

‘US government-backed organization explicitly established during the Reagan era as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) front group. Former NED acting president Allen Weinstein even admitted in a 1991 interview that “A lot of what [the NED does] today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA. The biggest difference is that when such activities are done overtly, the flap potential is close to zero. Openness is its own protection.”’

Aaron Maté further elucidated Bellingcat’s Western funding sources and associations on his substack:

‘Bellingcat takes in more money from other Western governments and cut-outs, including the Dutch Postcode Lottery. Bellingcat was a founding partner in the Open Information Partnership (OIP), which is funded by the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, FCDO. Another OIP partner, Zinc Network, which is funded by the UK and US governments, has given Bellingcat at least €160,000….A number of Bellingcat’s staffers and contributors have NATO intelligence and military backgrounds, including the UK army, the GCHQ, the Royal United Services Institute, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Pentagon.’

Such information, in tandem with previously mentioned information ties Bellingcat to intelligence operations, ultimately suggests Bellingcat cannot truly be an independent body as it, or Proton, claims.

In any case, Proton’s apparent ignorance regarding Bellingcat’s true nature is surprising, if not tone-deaf, for a company whose privacy-focused user-base utilizes Proton Mail as an alternative to “Big Tech” email giants like Gmail.

But the Bellingcat debacle isn’t Proton’s only flop. First, Wired reported in 2021 that Proton had removed the phrase “By default, we do not keep any IP logs which can be linked to your anonymous email account” from its website after giving a climate activist’s data to Swiss authorities, subsequently watering the language down to simply “ProtonMail is an email that respects privacy and puts people (not advertisers) first.” In response, critics mused that Proton’s privacy-forward marketing was misleading due to security weaknesses and encryption difficulties inherent to email.

Further, the organization has a curious history of supporting color revolutions and Western-backed initiatives in its public statements and its funding, including previous color revolution attempts in Hong Kong and Belarus.

During Hong Kong’s attempted color-revolution in 2019-2020, where the US worked to sow political discontent in China, ProtonVPN published an article titled “Help us defend democracy and freedom in Hong Kong,” seemingly to assist. It explained to supporters that it would be donating 50% of its Hong Kong revenue in mid-2020 “to support two local civil rights organizations: 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund and Stand With Hong Kong.”

When asked about its assistance of a movement working to advance US geopolitical goals within Chinese territory and about its possible relationship with the US government’s Open Technology Fund, Proton replied with:

All our funding is publicly disclosed, and we have no OTF funding. Furthermore, the groups that we support (in HK and elsewhere) are strictly non-political groups, not aligned with any political party of ideology. The 612 fund for example is strictly non-partisan and apolitical.’

While Proton claimed the Hong Kong-based groups it funded were “non-political,” a closer look at 612 and Stand With Hong Kong’s operations suggests otherwise. 612, which was slammed for its failure to officially register as a fund in Hong Kong, was suspected of receiving Western funds that would help rioters avoid bail and jailtime, thus helping foreign entities meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs.

Meanwhile, far from “non-political,” Stand With Hong Kong had worked to lobby Western governments into backing punitive measures against China, including asking members of the UK public to request their respective members of parliament to implement sanctions. (Indeed, the US subsequently imposed sanctions on China, likely partly due to the collective efforts of groups like SWHK and 612 to call for and normalize international intervention).

During a Western color revolution attempt in Belarus in 2020, further, Proton also “support[ed] freedom” in Belarus in an article declaring “Belarusians are in the streets, no longer willing to live under the tyranny of “Europe’s last dictator.” We at Proton stand with the people of Belarus against the violent suppression of their freedoms.”

In the article, Proton employed “freedom”-facing language as it commonly surfaces in Western-backed color revolutions, where such language helps to make foreign-backed policy and regime-change efforts appear organic and popular amongst ordinary people:

‘After nearly three decades of often violent repression and censorship, Belarus has said “enough.” As a company with many Belarusian users and which has financially supported independent Belarusian journalists in the past, we once again stand in support of freedom and democracy.’

Indeed, Belarus faced mass protests in 2020, and many Belarusians have had genuine grievances against their government. But foreign forces were also at play. For example, the European Union formally recognized the oppositional interim government created by Opposition Leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who declared herself the winner of Belarus’ 2020 elections despite only receiving about ten percent of the vote. Western powers also coordinated to slam Belarus with sanctions.

Notably, Proton has financially supported Belarus-based Charter’97, an “independent” media organization that Proton describes as one of “Belarus’s most trusted news sites.” In fact, Charter’97 is not independent, but is instead backed by Western governments and adjacent organizations, including The Netherlands, media development organization Canal France International (CFI), the Lithuanian Development Cooperation, the Open Society Foundations, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States in a matter typical of Western-backed media groups created to affect policy and sometimes even drive regime change in countries somehow obstructive to the West’s geopolitical objectives.

Meanwhile, there’s a precedent of privacy-focused communications groups (especially those based in Switzerland, a common destination for such endeavors thanks to its rigorous privacy laws), such as Anom and Crypto AG, actually being intelligence fronts used to collect data on users en masse. Likewise, as Kit Klarenberg recently reported for Al Mayadeen English, popular encrypted messaging app “Signal’s origins as a US government asset are a matter of extensive public record.” Such information in itself proves little about possible Proton-intelligence ties, but is worth consideration and further investigation within the context of the organization’s recent support of intelligence proxy Bellingcat.

In an email to me, Proton emphasized it is “politically neutral” but “support[s] fundamental human rights across the globe, including freedom of information, freedom of expression, and the right to privacy.”

But while Proton has critiqued other political and privacy-related problems elsewhere, including ongoing privacy issues in the US, such as the NSA’s surveillance impact on US-based email providers, its larger tendency to support groups and movements whose goals otherwise align with the West’s larger geopolitical strategy is unmistakable, especially within the context of its support of Western-backed unrest in Hong Kong and Belarus.

Ultimately, even if Proton’s near-consistent support of Western soft-power or intelligence-adjacent projects is simply due to ignorance, or part of its support of “fundamental human rights across the globe,” it poses critical questions about the organization’s true loyalties.

(Featured Image: “Proton Mail” by Proton is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.)


  • Stavroula Pabst

    Stavroula Pabst is a writer, comedian, and media PhD student at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Athens, Greece. Her writing has appeared in publications including AthensLive, Reductress, Passage and The Grayzone.

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