Email privacy expectations

Email privacy expectations

Email privacy and security concerns have seen a massive rise after the PRISM/Global surveillance revelations and have given birth to various dedicated email privacy solutions that try to ensure users’ email confidentiality, integrity and authenticity. End-users expectations are now much higher regarding email privacy – (a poetic illustration can be found here).  The question remains:  How can we satisfy legitimate user expectations of Email privacy ?

Before going any further, let us first go through some basic questions in order to set-up the context.

Why is email not secure?

Email is not fundamentally secure because it was never meant to be the center of our digital lives. It was developed when the Internet was a much smaller place. It standardized simple store-and-forward messaging (SMTP) between people using different kinds of computers. The messages were transferred completely in the open and everything was readable by anyone who could watch network traffic. Amazingly and unfortunately email mostly works in the same way and is therefore not secure.

What steps have been taken in securing email so far ?

Not much, aside from partially encrypting (STARTTLSSMTP STS) their journey from sender to recipient. This only works on certain conditions, which are most often not met.

Some increased security was also applied to email accounts (SPF/DKIM/DMARC, …) in order to step-up the email security on the whole.

What if I do not use email at all anymore for my daily communications?

It might seem a good suggestion, and some have even endorsed this idea – but is it the solution to this problem? In our opinion, the answer is No. Email is not going away anytime soon as it’s far too integrated in our digital world and holds a near-universal status on almost every device.

There are some projects however which are working along these lines (i.e. LEAP, …) but it is at this point in time “work-in-progress”, which even after completion will face the critical issue of mass adoption.

What should I do ?

Well, Snowden said “Encryption works” – and we believe it should be end-to-end encryption (not partial encryption – which we’ve seen in the case of STARTTLS, SMTP STS).

Other crucial aspect of this end-to-end encryption methodology is what encryption protocols, ciphers and key lengths are being used and how such end-to-end encryption mechanism has been implemented. This is where Mailfence comes into play and provides a securely implemented end-to-end encryption facility using strong open-source and publicly accepted protocols (OpenPGP), ciphers (RSA/AES, …) with strong key lengths (4096 bits/256 bits, …).

Now, coming back to the end-user expectations – the first thing to highlight is that email encryption is not synonymous with email privacy. While email body and attachments encryption plays a key role, other factors also strongly affect your email privacy.

Metadata & Anonymity – to, from, date, time, IP etc… of email messages allow surveillance. They paint a reasonably informative picture of the target even if the content & attachments are encrypted. Mailfence by default strips your IP address from email message headers, and encourages you to use it over hidden services (for e.g, tor…) with or without anonymous re-mailers (schleuder, …). A dedicated onion domain has also been planned for this purpose.

Public availability – the ability of people willing to use compatible tools and adaptable ways to communicate with you securely and privately. Mailfence uses OpenPGP, a time-honored open source protocol with a decentralized trust mechanism, that is available to masses and is compatible with tons of other tools out there.

Control and Freedom – the ability to make secure and private use of common email as well as encrypted email. Mailfence provides you the ability of communicating with both external (other service) users and internal (mailfence) users without any restriction, along with full freedom and control over your privacy. Moreover, you don’t need any third-party add-on/plugin and can use Mailfence on all devices running a modern browser.

Better usability – which arguably is the biggest obstacle to any email privacy-conscious solution when it comes to mass adoption. Most people tend to give up on their security and privacy whenever it becomes a bit difficult to understand and use a particular system. Mailfence provides easy-to-understand and a user-friendly solution, which have successfully achieved the right balance between security and usability.

The bottom line is that email as we know it today has never been secure, and the myriad ways we send, receive, store, and use email messages make securing and enhancing email privacy a very difficult problem. Also, the lean towards ‘excessive’ convenience over security by various service providers has neglected the requisite approach of having the right balance between security and convenience. At best, based on the answers of questions that we addressed above and in the light of raised expectations with email security and privacy – we believe Mailfence: a secure and private email suite has set a new benchmark and will continue its strive under the motto of Privacy is a right not a feature.

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– Mailfence Team

Avatar for M Salman Nadeem

M Salman Nadeem

Information Security Analyst - Security Team | Mailfence

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