Image from EFF

Is e-mail OK for secret stuff?

Image by EFF

Image by EFF

Short answer: No. Slightly longer answer: Maybe, but not without additional protection.

E-mail is one of the oldest and most widely used services on Internet. It was developed during an era when we were comfortably unaware of viruses, worms, spam, e-crime and the NSA. And that is clearly visible in the architecture and blatant lack of security features. Without going deep into technical details, one can conclude that the security of plain e-mail is next to non-existing. The mail standards do by themselves not provide any kind of encryption or verification of the communicating parties’ identity. All this can be done with additional protection arrangements. But are you doing it and do you know how to?

Here’s some points to keep in mind.

  • Hackers or intelligence agencies may tap into the traffic between you and the mail server. This is very serious as it could reveal even your user ID and password, enabling others to log in to the server and read your stored mails. The threat can be mitigated by ensuring that the network traffic is encrypted. Most mail client programs offer an option to use SSL- or TLS-encryption for sent and received mail. See the documentation for your mail program or service provider. If you use webmail in your browser, you should make sure the connection is encrypted. See this article for more details. If it turns out that you can’t use encryption with your current service provider, then start looking for another one promptly.
  • Your mails are stored at the mail server. There are three main points that affect how secure they are there. Your own password and how secret you keep it, the service provider’s security policies and the legislation in the country where the service provider operates. Most ordinary service providers offer decent protection against hackers and other low-resource parties, but less protection against authorities in their home country.
  • Learn how to recognize phishing attacks as that is one of the most common reasons for mail accounts to be compromised.
  • There are some mail service providers that focus purely on secrecy and use some kind of encryption to keep messages secret. Hushmail (Canada) and Mega’s (New Zealand) planned service are good examples. Lavabit and Silent Mail used to provide this kind of service too, but they have been closed down under pressure from officials. This recent development shows that services run in the US can’t be safe. US authorities can walk in at any time and request your data or force them to implement backdoors, no matter what security measures the service provider is implementing. And it’s foolish to believe that this is used only against terrorists. It’s enough that a friend of a friend of a friend is targeted for some reason or that there is some business interest that competes with American interests.
  • The safest way to deal with most of the threats is to use end-to-end encryption. For this you need some additional software like Pretty Good Privacy, aka. PGP. It’s a bit of a hassle as both parties need to have compatible encryption programs and exchange encryption keys. But when it’s done you have protection for both stored messages and messages in transit. PGP also provides strong authentication of the message sender in addition to secrecy. This is the way to go if you deal with hot stuff frequently.
  • An easier way to transfer secret stuff is to attach encrypted files. You can for example use WinZip or 7-Zip to create encrypted packages. Select the AES encryption algorithm (if you have a choice) and make sure you use a hard to guess password that is long enough and contains upper and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters. Needless to say, do not send the password to the other party by mail. Agreeing on the password is often the weakest link and you should pay attention to it. Even phone and SMS may be unsafe if an intelligence agency is interested in you.
  • Remember that traffic metadata may reveal a lot even if you have encrypted the content. That is info about who you have communicated with and at what time. The only protection against this is really to use anonymous mail accounts that can’t be linked to you. This article touches on the topic.
  • Remember that there always are at least two parties in communication. And no chain is stronger than its weakest link. It doesn’t matter how well you secure your mail if you send a message to someone with sloppy security.
  • Mails are typically stored in plaintext on your own computer if you use a mail client program. Webmail may also leave mail messages in the browser cache. This means that you need to care about the computer’s security if you deal with sensitive information. Laptops and mobile devices are especially easy to lose or steal, which can lead to data leaks. Data can also leak through malware that has infected your computer.
  • If you work for a company and use mail services provided by them, then the company should have implemented suitable protection. Most large companies run their own internal mail services and route traffic between sites over encrypted connections. You do not have to care yourself in this case, but it may be a good idea to check it. Just ask the IT guy at the coffee table if NSA can read your mails and see how he reacts.

Finally. Sit down and think about what kind of mail secrecy you need. Imagine that all messages you have sent and received were made public. What harm would that cause? Would it be embarrassing to you or your friends? Would it hurt your career or employer? Would it mean legal problems for you or your associates? (No, you do not need to be criminal for this to happen. Signing a NDA may be enough.) Would it damage the security of your country?  Would it risk the life of you or others? And harder to estimate, can any of this stuff cause you harm if it’s stored ten or twenty years and then released in a world that is quite different from today?

At this point you can go back to the list above and decide if you need to do something to improve your mail security.

Safe surfing,
Micke

More posts from this topic

FBI

No, we do not need to carry black boxes

The recent statements from FBI director James Comey is yet another example of the authorities’ opportunistic approach to surveillance. He dislikes the fact that mobile operating systems from Google and Apple now come with strong encryption for data stored on the device. This security feature is naturally essential when you lose your device or if you are a potential espionage target. But the authorities do not like it as it makes investigations harder. What he said was basically that there should be a method for authorities to access data in mobile devices with a proper warrant. This would be needed to effectively fight crime. Going on to list some hated crime types, murder, child abuse, terrorism and so on. And yes, this might at first sound OK. Until you start thinking about it. Let’s translate Comey’s statement into ordinary non-obfuscated English. This is what he really said: “I, James Comey, director of FBI, want every person world-wide to carry a tracking device at all times. This device shall collect the owner’s electronic communications and be able to open cloud services where data is stored. The content of these tracking devices shall on request be made available to the US authorities. We don’t care if this weakens your security, and you shouldn’t care because our goals are more important than your privacy.” Yes, that’s what we are talking about here. The “tracking devices” are of course our mobile phones and other digital gadgets. Our digital lives are already accurate mirrors of our actual lives. Our gadgets do not only contain actual data, they are also a gate to the cloud services because they store passwords. Granting FBI access to mobile devices does not only reveal data on the device. It also opens up all the user’s cloud services, regardless of if they are within US jurisdiction or not. In short. Comey want to put a black box in the pocket of every citizen world-wide. Black boxes that record flight data and communications are justified in cockpits, not in ordinary peoples’ private lives. But wait. What if they really could solve crimes this way? Yes, there would probably be a handful of cases where data gathered this way is crucial. At least enough to make fancy PR and publically show how important it is for the authorities to have access to private data. But even proposing weakening the security of commonly and globally used operating systems is a sign of gross negligence against peoples’ right to security and privacy. The risk is magnitudes bigger than the upside. Comey was diffuse when talking about examples of cases solved using device data. But the history is full of cases solved *without* data from smart devices. Well, just a decade ago we didn’t even have this kind of tracking devices. And the police did succeed in catching murderers and other criminals despite that. You can also today select to not use a smartphone, and thus drop the FBI-tracker. That is your right and you do not break any laws by doing so. Many security-aware criminals are probably operating this way, and many more would if Comey gets what he wants. So it’s very obvious that the FBI must have capability to investigate crime even without turning every phone into a black box. Comey’s proposal is just purely opportunistic, he wants this data because it exists. Not because he really needs it.   Safe surfing, Micke    

Oct 17, 2014
BY Micke
CITIZENFOUR_1

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear: How Britain has sleepwalked into a surveillance state

The issue of mass government surveillance may have taken a back seat to other headlines lately, but the new Edward Snowden documentary is bringing it to light once more. CITIZENFOUR, the Laura Poitras film documenting the moments Edward Snowden handed over classified documents detailing the mass indiscriminate and illegal invasions of privacy by the US's National Security Agency, is getting rave reviews ahead of its world premiere. The film is already prescreening in the UK, and along with that, F-Secure's UK office is publishing a research report that highlights the growing concern of the public - specifically, the British public - with mass surveillance. The ‘Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear?’ report centers on the concern about surveillance being undertaken by the British government on its own people, as well as foreign nationals. The concerns are justified, as Snowden himself in recent comments warned that the British Government is even worse than its American counterparts, since the founding fathers of the US enshrined in law certain rights which the Brits – with no written constitution – cannot claim. Research* commissioned for the report shows that 86% of Brits do not agree with mass surveillance. Snowden’s leaks last year highlighted the extent to which Western intelligence agencies are snooping on the general populace, including their emails, phone calls, web searches, social media interactions and geo-location. And when you consider the fact that the UK has 5.9 million closed-circuit TV cameras (one for every 11 people, as opposed to one informant per 65 people in the Stasi-controlled East German state), the extent to which Britain has fallen into being a surveillance state becomes shockingly clear. The UK government, of course, insists that indiscriminate surveillance will protect national security. However, the UK's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) contravenes Article 12 of the Human Rights Act: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.” “We are in unchartered territory and we appear to have sleepwalked here,” said Allen Scott, managing director of F-Secure UK & Ireland. “Little by little, our rights to privacy have been eroded and many people don’t even realise the extent to which they are being monitored. This isn’t targeted surveillance of suspected criminals and terrorists – this is monitoring the lives of the population as a whole.” With the future use of this data uncertain, the British people are showing their concerns. The research showed that 78% of respondents are concerned with the consequences of having their data tracked. This concern will only increase as more privacy-infringing schemes pervade UK government departments, offering up more personal data for GCHQ, the British intelligence agency, to use. Be sure to check out CITIZENFOUR once it hits your part of the world. And if you're in the UK, you can be among the first to see it – see pre-screening venues here: https://citizenfourfilm.com/   READ THE REPORT: Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear?   See more of what Brits think about surveillance in our infographic:       *Research conducted by Vital Research & Statistics on behalf of F-Secure. 2,000 adult respondents. 10-13th October 2014.    

Oct 17, 2014
Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 7.29.32 AM

Who is waging digital war on the Hong Kong protesters?

Is this China's digital riot police? A "particularly remarkable advanced persistent threat" has been compromising websites in Hong Kong and Japan for months, according to Volexity. The pro-democratic sites that have been infected include "Alliance for True Democracy – Hong Kong" and "People Power – Hong Kong" along with several others identified with the Occupy Central and Umbrella Revolution student movements behind the massive protests against the Chinese government. Visitors to the sites are being targeted by malware designed for "exploitation, compromise, and digital surveillance". In an analysis on our Labs Blog, Micke notes that it's possible that cybercriminals could be simply piggybacking on the news without any political motivation. However, the Remote Access Trojans (RATs) being used could provide serious advantages to political opponents of the movement. "A lot of the visitors on these sites are involved in the movement somehow, either as leaders or at grassroot level," he writes. "Their enemy could gain a lot of valuable information by planting RATs even in a small fraction of these peoples’ devices." And even leaders aren't compromised, the publicity around the attack will drive users away from the sites. This is a tactic that would definitely benefit those who want these see protests to end ASAP.  And it would be a far more effective tactic if not for social networks like Twitter that can be accessed to plan resistance,even if the government blocks them -- as long as you have a VPN solution like our Freedome. If the goal is to cripple the protests by targeting protesters, "you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that China is the prime suspect," Micke writes. The significance a state-sponsored RAT attack -- or even a state-condoned attack carried out by privateers -- would be immense. Criminals use malware to target individuals, businesses and governments themselves. Government-sponsored cyberattacks on citizens practicing civil disobedience could be considered an escalation beyond even likely government-sponsored surveillance malware like Flame, which forces businesses to consider malware attacks from their own governments. Over the last year we've learned just how far suspicious governments will go to play defense against internet users who haven't been accused of any crime. Now we're seeing hints that a government may be willing to play offense too.

Oct 15, 2014