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

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In what color would you like your new Mercedes?

A new Mercedes. Nice. Or maybe an Audi R8? That would be cool. But hold it! Don’t sell your old car yet! Liking and sharing that giveaway campaign on Facebook will NOT give you a new car. Those prizes doesn’t even exist. They are just hoaxes. Internet and Facebook is full of crap, junk, rubbish, nonsense and gibberish. Nobody knows how many chain letters there are spreading some kind of unbelievable story. False celebrity news, bogus first-aid advice, phony charity campaigns and this kind of giveaways. We tend to think about these chain letters as hoaxes, pretty harmless jokes that doesn’t hurt us. But that’s not the full story. A hoax can be harmful, like the outright dangerous first aid advice that some people keep spreading. But a car giveaway is probably a harmless and safe prank, even if it’s false? No, not really. These chain letters are actually not traditional hoaxes, they are like-farming scams. There’s no free lunch, you don’t pay for Facebook with money but with your private data. The like-farming scams work in the same currency. You will not lose any money even if you like the page and share it. Instead you will participate in building a page with a lot of supporters, which is valuable and can be sold later. Needless to say, you will not get any of that money. Here’s how it works. Any business has a problem when starting on Facebook. An empty page without likes isn’t trustworthy. So the scammers set up a page containing anything that can go viral. A promise to get a luxury car works well. They just have to tell everyone to like the page and to share it as much as possible, to keep the chain reaction going and get even more likes. The scammers wait until there’s enough likes before they clean out the content, rename it and start looking for a buyer. The price is in “$ per k”, meaning dollars per 1000 likes. A page with 100 000 likes could sell for over $1000. So sharing the page can make quite a lot of money for the scammers if you have a lot of gullible friends, who in turn have a lot of gullible friends, and so on … The downside for you is that the likes stick even if the page is redesigned for some totally different purpose. Your face will be an evangelist for the page’s new owners and show up next to their brand. And you have no idea about what you will be promoting. I have friends who are anti-fur activists. You can probably imagine what one of them would feel when discovering that she likes a fur-coat designer! And finally some concrete advice. Review your list of old likes regularly. Remove everything except those things you truly like and want to support. When you encounter a giveaway post like this, check the involved brand’s main page in Facebook by searching for the brand name. You will in most cases notice that the giveaway is a totally different page that just is named similarly. That’s a strong scam indicator. Use common sense. From the above you get an idea about what likes in Facebook are worth. Does it make sense to give away luxury cars for this? Don’t participate in scams like this. It might feel tempting, but remember that your chance to win is exactly zero. Spread knowledge every time you see a scam of this kind. Comment with a link to this post or the appropriate description on Hoax-Slayer or Snopes.   Those sites are by the way fun and educating reading. I recommend spending some time there getting familiar with other types of hoaxes too. Read at least these two articles: Facebook car giveaway on Snopes and Facebook like-farming scams on Hoax-Slayer .   Safe surfing, Micke  

Dec 16, 2014
BY 
crime scene

Help! I lost my wallet, phone and everything! I need 1000 €!

“Sorry for the inconvenience, I'm in Limassol, Cyprus. I am here for a week and I just lost my bag containing all my important items, phone and money at the bus station. I need some help from you. Thanks” Many of you have seen these messages and some of you already know what the name of the game is. Yes, it’s another type of Internet scam, an imposter scam variant. I got this message last week from a photo club acquaintance. Or to be precise, the message was in bad Swedish from Google translate. Here’s what happened. First I got the mail. Needless to say, I never suspected that he was in trouble in Limassol. Instead I called him to check if he was aware of the scam. He was, I wasn’t the first to react. Several others had contacted him before me and some were posting warnings to his friends on Facebook. These scams start by someone breaking in to the victim’s web mail, which was Gmail in this case. This can happen because of a bad password, a phishing attack, malware in the computer or a breach in some other system. Then the scammer checks the settings and correspondence to find out what language the victim is using. The next step is to send a message like the above to all the victim’s contacts. The victim had reacted correctly and changed the Gmail password ASAP. But I wanted to verify and replied to the scam mail anyway, asking what I can do to help. One hour later I got this: “Thanks, I need to borrow about 1000 euros, will pay you back as soon as I get home. Western Union Money Transfer is the fastest option to wire funds to me. All you need to do is find the nearest Western Union shop and the money will be sent in minutes. See details needed WU transfer below. Name: (Redacted) Address: Limassol, Cyprus you must email me the reference number provided on the payment slip as soon as you make the transfer so I can receive money here. Thank you,” Now it should be obvious for everyone how this kind of scam works. Once the scammers get the reference number they just go to Western Union to cash in. Most recipients will not fall for this, but the scammers will get a nice profit if even one or two contacts send money. But wait. To pull this off, the scammers need to retain control over the mail account. They need to send the second mail and receive the reference number. How can this work if the victim had changed his password? This works by utilizing human’s inability to notice tiny details. The scammers will register a new mail account with an address that is almost identical to the victim’s. The first mail comes from the victim’s account, but directs replies to the new account. So the conversation can continue with the new account that people believe belongs to the victim. The new address may have a misspelled name or use a different separator between the first and last names. Or be in a different domain that is almost the same as the real one. The two addresses are totally different for computers, but a human need to pay close attention to notice the difference. How many of you would notice if a mail address changes from say Bill.Gates@gmail.com to BiII_Gates@mail.com? (How many differences do you notice, right answer at the end?) To be honest, I was sloppy too in this case and didn’t at first see the tiny difference. In theory it is also possible that webmail servers may leave active sessions open and let the scammers keep using the hacked account for a while after the password has been changed. I just tested this on Gmail. They close old sessions automatically pretty quickly, but it is anyway a good idea to use the security settings and manually terminate any connection the scammers may have open. I exchanged a couple of mails with this person the day after. He told that the scammers had changed the webmail user interface to Arabic, which probably is a hint about where they are from. I was just about to press send when I remembered to check the mail address. Bummer, the scammer’s address was still there so my reply would not have reached him unless I had typed the address manually. The account’s reply-to was still set to the scammer’s fake account. OK, let’s collect a checklist that helps identifying these scams. If someone asks for urgent help by mail, assume it’s a scam. These scams are a far more common than real requests for help. We are of course all ready to help friends, but are YOU really the one that the victim would contact in this situation? Are you close enough? How likely is it that you are close enough, but still had no clue he was travelling in Cyprus? Creating urgency is a very basic tool for scammers. Something must be done NOW so that people haven't got time to think or talk to others. The scammers may or may not be able to write correct English, but other languages are most likely hilarious Google-translations. Bad grammar is a strong warning sign. Requesting money using Western Union is another red flag. Wire transfer of money provides pretty much zero security for the sender, and scammers like that. Many scammers in this category try to fake an embarrassing situation and ask the recipient to not tell anyone else, to reduce the risk that someone else sees through it. These messages often state that the phone is lost to prevent the recipient from calling to check. But that is exactly what you should do anyway. Next checklist, how to deal with a situation where your account has been hijacked and used for scams. Act promptly. Change the mail account’s passwords. Check the webmail settings and especially the reply-to address. Correct any changed settings. Check for a function in the web mail that terminates open sessions from other devices. Gmail has a “Secure your account” -wizard under the account’s security settings. It’s a good idea to go through it. Inform your friends. A fast Facebook update may reach them before they see the scammer’s mail and prevent someone from falling for it. It also helps raising awareness. And finally, how to not be a victim in the first place. This is really about account security basics. Make sure you use a decent password. It’s easier to maintain good password habits with a password manager. Activate two-factor authentication on your important accounts. I think anyone’s main mail account is important enough for it. Learn to recognize phishing scams as they are a very common way to break into accounts. Maintain proper malware protection on all your devices. Spyware is a common way to steal account passwords. The last checklist is primarily about protecting your account. But that’s not the full picture. Imagine one of your friends falls for the scam and loses 1000 € when your account is hacked. It is kind of nice that someone cares that much about you, but losing money for it is not nice. Yes, the criminal scammer is naturally the primarily responsible. And yes, people who fall for the scam can to some extent blame themselves. But the one with the hacked account carries a piece of responsibility too. He or she could have avoided the whole incident with the tools described above. Caring about your account security is caring about your friends too! And last but not least. Knowledge is as usual the strongest weapon against scams. They work only as long as there are people who don’t recognize the scam pattern. Help fighting scam by spreading the word!   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. The two mail addresses above have 3 significant differences. 1. The name separator has changed from a dot to an underscore. 2. The domain name is mail.com instead of gmail.com. 3. The two lower case Ls in Bill has been replaced with capital I. Each of these changes is enough to make it a totally separate mail address.   Image by Yumi Kimura

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