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

trust, internet, internet of things

A Brief History of the Trusted Internet

By Allen Scott, managing director of F-Secure UK and Ireland The internet and the industry which surrounds it is at a tipping point. The scramble to dominate in emerging product and service markets has led many organisations to lose sight of what the Internet should be. If things continue on this downward moral trajectory, we run the risk of breaching the rights of every person who uses it. As a general rule of thumb, violating customers and prospects is not a wise sales strategy. This is why the Trusted Internet is so important now, in 2015, to stem the tide. Half the world away The internet has morphed from a military funded academic computer network into the World Wide Web into what we know today. It has created new industries and billionaire business owners. It has made the world smaller by connecting people who would never otherwise have interacted. It has helped every person by making their life a little easier – from keeping in touch with family to being the number one resource for research on any given subject. It is hard to imagine life without it. Of course, not everyone is online…yet. Figures vary, but it is generally accepted that approximately 3 billion people are now connected to the internet. That is 42% of the world’s population. By 2018, it is estimated that half of the world’s population will be online. That means that every other person could have their human right to privacy (Article 12 of the Declaration of Human Rights) violated. It is unacceptable because it is avoidable. Personal data – the ultimate renewable resource The internet is now an extension of mankind. It is our marvellous creation and we are growing more and more dependent on it. The problem is that it is turning into a Frankenstein’s monster. We are so consumed with whether something (such as tracking people’s movements online) is possible, that the industry has forgotten to ask themselves whether they should. Morality has been pushed aside in the race to gain more personal data, for knowledge is power. Don’t believe how valuable data is? Just take a look at Google. A giant of the internet, it made over £11 billion in profit last year. Not bad for a company which gives away its services for free. Google collects so much data on its users that it is the fourth largest manufacturer of servers in the world. It doesn’t even sell servers! Personal data is big business. Advertisers pay a lot of money for profiles on people. What people like, where they live, who they are likely to vote for, whether they are left-handed – some marketing companies claim to have up to 1,500 points of interest on each individual’s profile. Are all of these ‘interesting points’ something which those people are happy to have shared? I doubt it.  What about the Internet of Things Next up is the Internet of Things (IoT). A concept whereby a vast number of objects, from toasters to bridges, will be connected to the internet where they will share the data they collect. The benefits of this emerging network is that analysis of the data will lead to efficiencies and will make life easier still for people. For example, I could combine the data collected from my smartphone pedometer, my diet app and my watch’s heart monitor to analyse my health and make informed improvements. So far, so good. The IoT waters get a little murkier when you start asking who else has access to that data about me. Maybe I don’t mind if my doctor sees it, but I’m not comfortable with marketing companies or health insurers seeing that data. It’s private. We are fortunate that we are still in the fledgling stage of the IoT and have the opportunity to shape how it impacts our private lives. This is a relatively small window in which to act though, so we must be outspoken in order to protect people’s civil liberties. The ethical solution The next stage of internet development needs to be the Trusted Internet. People have the right to privacy online and it is entirely possible. Not every business and organisation online is part of the data-collecting frenzy. Some, like F-Secure, simply don’t care what you want to look up in a search engine or which websites you visit (unless they are malicious, of course!). We believe that your data is exactly that – yours. Until now, the internet has developed a taste for the free in people. Users have been reluctant to pay for services which they could get for free elsewhere. But now people are realising that when they don’t pay for the product, they are the product. With F-Secure, our customers are just that – customers. Being the customer, their data is their own. Our job is to protect them and their data. We believe that the internet should be a place for people to learn and interact. There shouldn’t be a price on this in the form of our privacy. If there should be a price, it should be monetary, so that people have the chance to buy the services they wish to use, rather than gaining access to services in exchange for personal information. I would happily pay to use Google, Facebook, LinkedIn or one of the many other sites which stakes claim to me when I sign up. We are the generation which created the internet. Let’s not be the generation which disposed of decency, respect and privacy too. [Image by Timo Arnall | Flickr]

Feb 27, 2015
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Mikko Hypponen to Talk Privacy at the Mobile World Congress

This year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) is coming up next week. The annual Barcelona-based tech expo features the latest news in mobile technologies. One of the biggest issues of the past year has enticed our own digital freedom fighter Mikko Hypponen to participate in the event. Hypponen, a well-known advocate of digital freedom, has been defending the Internet and its users from digital threats for almost 25 years. He’s appearing at this year’s MWC on Monday, March 2 for a conference session called “Ensuring User-Centred Privacy in a Connected World”. The panel will discuss and debate different ways to ensure privacy doesn’t become a thing of the past. While Hypponen sees today’s technologies as having immeasurable benefits for us all, he’s become an outspoken critic of what he sees as what’s “going wrong in the online world”. He’s spoken prominently about a range of these issues in the past year, and been interviewed on topics as diverse as new malware and cybersecurity threats, mass surveillance and digital privacy, and the potential abuses of emerging technologies (such as the Internet of Things). The session will feature Hypponen and five other panelists. But, since the event is open to public discussion on Twitter under the #MWC15PRIV hashtag, you can contribute to the conversation. Here’s three talking points to help you get started: Security in a mobile world A recent story broken by The Intercept describes how the American and British governments hacked Gemalto, the largest SIM card manufacturer in the world. In doing so, they obtained the encryption keys that secure mobile phone calls across the globe. You can read a recent blog post about it here if you’re interested in more information about how this event might shape the discussion. Keeping safe online It recently came to light that an adware program called “Superfish” contains a security flaw that allows hackers to impersonate shopping, banking, or other websites. These “man-in-the-middle” attacks can be quite serious and trick people into sharing personal data with criminals. The incident highlights the importance of making sure people can trust their devices. And the fact that Superfish comes pre-installed on notebooks from the world’s largest PC manufacturer makes it worth discussing sooner rather than later. Privacy and the Internet of Things Samsung recently warned people to be aware when discussing personal information in front of their Smart TVs. You can get the details from this blog post, but basically the Smart TVs voice activation technology can apparently listen to what people are saying and even share the information with third parties. As more devices become “smart”, will we have to become smarter about what we say and do around them? The session is scheduled to run from 16:00 – 17:30 (CET), so don’t miss this chance to join the fight for digital freedom at the MWC. [Image by Hubert Burda Media | Flickr]

Feb 27, 2015
BY 
Apple

Which operating system is the most secure? Four points to remember.

No, you are almost certainly wrong if you tried to guess. A recent study shows that products from Apple actually are at the top when counting vulnerabilities, and that means at the bottom security-wise. Just counting vulnerabilities is not a very scientific way to measure security, and there is a debate over how to interpret the figures. But this is anyway a welcome eye-opener that helps kill old myths. Apple did for a long time stubbornly deny security problems and their marketing succeeded in building an image of security. Meanwhile Windows was the biggest and most malware-targeted system. Microsoft rolled up the sleeves and fought at the frontline against viruses and vulnerabilities. Their reputation suffered but Microsoft gradually improved in security and built an efficient process for patching security holes. Microsoft had what is most important in security, the right attitude. Apple didn’t and the recent vulnerability study shows the result. Here’s four points for people who want to select a secure operating system. Forget reputation when thinking security. Windows used to be bad and nobody really cared to attack Apple’s computers before they became popular. The old belief that Windows is unsafe and Apple is safe is just a myth nowadays. There is malware on almost all commonly used platforms. Windows Phone is the only exception with practically zero risk. Windows and Android are the most common systems and malware authors are targeting them most. So the need for an anti-malware product is naturally bigger on these systems. But the so called antivirus products of today are actually broad security suites. They protect against spam and harmful web sites too, just to mention some examples. So changes are that you want a security product anyway even if your system isn’t one of the main malware targets. So which system is most secure? It’s the one that is patched regularly. All the major systems, Windows, OS X and Linux have sufficient security for a normal private user. But they will also all become unsafe if the security updates are neglected. So security is not really a selection criteria for ordinary people. Mobile devices, phones and tablets, generally have a more modern systems architecture and a safer software distribution process. Do you have to use a desktop or laptop, or can you switch to a tablet? Dumping the big old-school devices is a way to improve security. Could it work for you? So all this really boils down to the fact that you can select any operating system you like and still be reasonable safe. There are some differences though, but it is more about old-school versus new-school devices. Not about Apple versus Microsoft versus Linux. Also remember that your own behavior affects security more than your choice of device, and that you never are 100% safe no matter what you do.   Safe surfing, Micke   Added February 27th. Yes, this controversy study has indeed stirred a heated debate, which isn’t surprising at all. Here’s an article defending Apple. It has flaws and represent a very limited view on security, but one of its important points still stands. If someone still thinks Apple is immortal and invincible, it’s time to wake up. And naturally that this whole debate is totally meaningless for ordinary users. Just keep patching what you have and you will be fine. :) Thanks to Jussi (and others) for feedback.  

Feb 26, 2015
BY