Is e-mail OK for secret stuff?

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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

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