Virtru Helps SMBs Keeps Google Apps Email Private

By Pedro Hernandez | Posted July 30, 2014

After helping consumers encrypt their emails with ease, Virtru, a technology startup from Washington D.C., aims to do the same for small and midsized businesses (SMBs).

The company's new Virtru for Business does for entrepreneurs, small firms and fellow startups what its software-as-a-service (SaaS) email encryption already does for individual consumers, but with  added controls to help businesses manage and monitor their email communications. While email encryption is nothing new, Virtru takes a user-friendly approach to sending sensitive information via email.

Sending private, encrypted emails typically requires some computer security know-how, extra hardware and/or software, and a fair bit of time spent configuring settings. You could accomplish it with a Google search and an online tutorial, but for tech novices, it's a non-starter, let alone busy small business owners.

As a result, most small businesses miss out on the advantages of securely sending sensitive information over email. Instead, they resort to phone calls, in-person meetings and other activities that rob time from already-packed schedules. Virtru is on a mission to help them reclaim that time and effort, while protecting their businesses.

User-friendly Encryption?

The company aims to "make email encryption super easy for the end-user," John Ackerly, CEO and co-founder of Virtru, told Small Business Computing. Formerly a Washington insider who ran technology policy at the White House, Ackerly, together with his brother Will, Virtru's CTO, devised a way to make sending secure emails a low-maintenance, practically seamless experience for business users.

Will Ackerly, it should be noted, once worked for the National Security Agency (NSA)—yes that NSA—and is an expert in keeping electronic communications under wraps.

"The current solutions don't serve small businesses well," said Ackerly. Whereas many security vendors are laser-focused on enterprise-grade capabilities that tickle IT administrators, Virtru is approaching the market with the end-user in mind.

To send encrypted emails using Google's Gmail webmail service, you need only download a browser plug-in. With a click of an on-screen button Virtru goes to work.

"The entire Compose window is encrypted," explained Ackerly. "Every keystroke is encrypted before it goes to Google's servers." Contents are kept private by the open source Trusted Data Format (TDF), an "agnostic wrapper that can secure all types of files." Fun fact: TDF hails from the U.S. intelligence community.

Virtru then forwards an "invitation button" to the recipient that, once clicked, displays the email in a secure browser. "It doesn't require any software to be installed," added Ackerly.

Easing concerns about trusting a third-party to one's email security, Ackerly assured that "all we do is store the encryption keys, we never have access to content." Not all vendors subscribe to this concept. "Typical encryption providers [require that customers] store data with them," a pricey proposition considering that they charge for "75 seats at a minimum."

Administrative Perks

The major difference between Virtru's two versions is that the consumer version supports Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Outlook and Mac Mail. Mobile apps are available for iOS and Android devices.  While Virtru for Business supports only Google Apps and Gmail, it goes a step further by layering management tools onto the platform—visibility and control to Google Apps environments.

Administrators can audit, monitor and restrict messages, preventing workers from sending emails to a competitor, for example. In addition, they can revoke emails if they discover that a recipient is not authorized or has been hacked.

Another handy feature, available to both administrators and end-users, is the ability to set expiration dates on emails and attachments. It's a capability that Ackerman uses on occasion to set a 30-minute expiry on credit card information to vendors, he said.

Ultimately, Virtru for Business was built to help small businesses—particularly those in highly-regulated industries—communicate with clients, partners and colleagues in a fluid and efficient way, said Ackerman. Virtru lets you "share more authentically, in a secure way" and better engage with a "world where you're forced to share."

Ackerman reported "tremendous pickup" among health practices for his product. As is usually the case, "medical professionals who want to communicate with their patients can't do it over email without violating HIPAA regulations." Short for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, HIPAA places strict rules on how patient information is stored and shared. Virtru for Business provides a way for doctors and other health professionals to discuss medical issues without incurring the wrath of regulators.

Virtru for Business is available now. Prices start at $2.50 per user per month, when the trial period ends this fall.

Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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