Entries Tagged "e-mail"

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Giving Up on PGP

Filippo Valsorda wrote an excellent essay on why he’s giving up on PGP. I have long believed PGP to be more trouble than it is worth. It’s hard to use correctly, and easy to get wrong. More generally, e-mail is inherently difficult to secure because of all the different things we ask of it and use it for.

Valsorda has a different complaint, that its long-term secrets are an unnecessary source of risk:

But the real issues, I realized, are more subtle. I never felt confident in the security of my long-term keys. The more time passed, the more I would feel uneasy about any specific key. Yubikeys would get exposed to hotel rooms. Offline keys would sit in a far away drawer or safe. Vulnerabilities would be announced. USB devices would get plugged in.

A long-term key is as secure as the minimum common denominator of your security practices over its lifetime. It’s the weak link.

Worse, long-term key patterns, like collecting signatures and printing fingerprints on business cards, discourage practices that would otherwise be obvious hygiene: rotating keys often, having different keys for different devices, compartmentalization. Such practices actually encourage expanding the attack surface by making backups of the key.

Both he and I favor encrypted messaging, either Signal or OTR.

EDITED TO ADD (1/13): More PGP criticism.

Posted on December 16, 2016 at 5:36 AMView Comments

Yahoo Scanned Everyone's E-mails for the NSA

News here and here.

Other companies have been quick to deny that they did the same thing, but I generally don’t believe those carefully worded statements about what they have and haven’t done. We do know that the NSA uses bribery, coercion, threat, legal compulsion, and outright theft to get what they want. We just don’t know which one they use in which case.

EDITED TO ADD (10/7): More news. This and this, too.

EDITED TO ADD (10/17): A related story.

Posted on October 6, 2016 at 1:58 PMView Comments

Another Scandal Resulting from E-mails Gone Public

A lot of Pennsylvania government officials are being hurt as a result of e-mails being made public. This is all the result of a political pressure to release the e-mails, and not an organizational doxing attack, but the effects are the same.

Our psychology of e-mail doesn’t match the reality. We treat it as ephemeral, even though it’s not. And the archival nature of e-mail — or text messages, or Twitter chats, or Facebook conversations — isn’t salient.

Posted on December 30, 2015 at 6:29 AMView Comments

Testing the Usability of PGP Encryption Tools

Why Johnny Still, Still Can’t Encrypt: Evaluating the Usability of a Modern PGP Client,” by Scott Ruoti, Jeff Andersen, Daniel Zappala, and Kent Seamons.

Abstract: This paper presents the results of a laboratory study involving Mailvelope, a modern PGP client that integrates tightly with existing webmail providers. In our study, we brought in pairs of participants and had them attempt to use Mailvelope to communicate with each other. Our results shown that more than a decade and a half after Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt, modern PGP tools are still unusable for the masses. We finish with a discussion of pain points encountered using Mailvelope, and discuss what might be done to address them in future PGP systems.

I have recently come to the conclusion that e-mail is fundamentally unsecurable. The things we want out of e-mail, and an e-mail system, are not readily compatible with encryption. I advise people who want communications security to not use e-mail, but instead use an encrypted message client like OTR or Signal.

Posted on November 12, 2015 at 2:28 PMView Comments

The Doxing Trend

If the director of the CIA can’t keep his e-mail secure, what hope do the rest of us have — for our e-mail or any of our digital information?

None, and that’s why the companies that we entrust with our digital lives need to be required to secure it for us, and held accountable when they fail. It’s not just a personal or business issue; it’s a matter of public safety.

The details of the story are worth repeating. Someone, reportedly a teenager, hacked into CIA Director John O. Brennan’s AOL account. He says he did so by posing as a Verizon employee to Verizon to get personal information about Brennan’s account, as well as his bank card number and his AOL e-mail address. Then he called AOL and pretended to be Brennan. Armed with the information he got from Verizon, he convinced AOL customer service to reset his password.

The CIA director did nothing wrong. He didn’t choose a lousy password. He didn’t leave a copy of it lying around. He didn’t even send it in e-mail to the wrong person. The security failure, according to this account, was entirely with Verizon and AOL. Yet still Brennan’s e-mail was leaked to the press and posted on WikiLeaks.

This kind of attack is not new. In 2012, the Gmail and Twitter accounts of Wired writer Mat Honan were taken over by a hacker who first persuaded Amazon to give him Honan’s credit card details, then used that information to hack into his Apple ID account, and finally used that information to get into his Gmail account.

For most of us, our primary e-mail account is the “master key” to every one of our other accounts. If we click on a site’s “forgot your password?” link, that site will helpfully e-mail us a special URL that allows us to reset our password. That’s how Honan’s hacker got into his Twitter account, and presumably Brennan’s hacker could have done the same thing to any of Brennan’s accounts.

Internet e-mail providers are trying to beef up their authentication systems. Yahoo recently announced it would do away with passwords, instead sending a one-time authentication code to the user’s smartphone. Google has long had an optional two-step authentication system that involves sending a one-time code to the user via phone call or SMS.

You might think cell phone authentication would thwart these attacks. Even if a hacker persuaded your e-mail provider to change your password, he wouldn’t have your phone and couldn’t obtain the one-time code. But there’s a way to beat this, too. Indie developer Grant Blakeman’s Gmail account was hacked last year, even though he had that extra-secure two-step system turned on. The hackers persuaded his cell phone company to forward his calls to another number, one controlled by the hackers, so they were able to get the necessary one-time code. And from Google, they were able to reset his Instagram password.

Brennan was lucky. He didn’t have anything classified on his AOL account. There were no personal scandals exposed in his email. Yes, his 47-page top-secret clearance form was sensitive, but not embarrassing. Honan was less lucky, and lost irreplaceable photographs of his daughter.

Neither of them should have been put through this. None of us should have to worry about this.

The problem is a system that makes this possible, and companies that don’t care because they don’t suffer the losses. It’s a classic market failure, and government intervention is how we have to fix the problem.

It’s only when the costs of insecurity exceed the costs of doing it right that companies will invest properly in our security. Companies need to be responsible for the personal information they store about us. They need to secure it better, and they need to suffer penalties if they improperly release it. This means regulatory security standards.

The government should not mandate how a company secures our data; that will move the responsibility to the government and stifle innovation. Instead, government should establish minimum standards for results, and let the market figure out how to do it most effectively. It should allow individuals whose information has been exposed sue for damages. This is a model that has worked in all other aspects of public safety, and it needs to be applied here as well.

We have a role to play in this, too. One of the reasons security measures are so easy to bypass is that we as consumers demand they be easy to use, and easy for us to bypass if we lose or forget our passwords. We need to recognize that good security will be less convenient. Again, regulations mandating this will make it more common, and eventually more acceptable.

Information security is complicated, and hard to get right. I’m an expert in the field, and it’s hard for me. It’s hard for the director of the CIA. And it’s hard for you. Security settings on websites are complicated and confusing. Security products are no different. As long as it’s solely the user’s responsibility to get right, and solely the user’s loss if it goes wrong, we’re never going to solve it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We should demand better and more usable security from the companies we do business with and whose services we use online. But because we don’t have any real visibility into those companies’ security, we should demand our government start regulating the security of these companies as a matter of public safety.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on October 28, 2015 at 6:24 AMView Comments

The Security Risks of Third-Party Data

Most of us get to be thoroughly relieved that our e-mails weren’t in the Ashley Madison database. But don’t get too comfortable. Whatever secrets you have, even the ones you don’t think of as secret, are more likely than you think to get dumped on the Internet. It’s not your fault, and there’s largely nothing you can do about it.

Welcome to the age of organizational doxing.

Organizational doxing — stealing data from an organization’s network and indiscriminately dumping it all on the Internet — is an increasingly popular attack against organizations. Because our data is connected to the Internet, and stored in corporate networks, we are all in the potential blast-radius of these attacks. While the risk that any particular bit of data gets published is low, we have to start thinking about what could happen if a larger-scale breach affects us or the people we care about. It’s going to get a lot uglier before security improves.

We don’t know why anonymous hackers broke into the networks of Avid Life Media, then stole and published 37 million — so far — personal records of AshleyMadison.com users. The hackers say it was because of the company’s deceptive practices. They expressed indifference to the “cheating dirtbags” who had signed up for the site. The primary target, the hackers said, was the company itself. That philanderers were exposed, marriages were ruined, and people were driven to suicide was apparently a side effect.

Last November, the North Korean government stole and published gigabytes of corporate e-mail from Sony Pictures. This was part of a much larger doxing — a hack aimed at punishing the company for making a movie parodying the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The press focused on Sony’s corporate executives, who had sniped at celebrities and made racist jokes about President Obama. But also buried in those e-mails were loves, losses, confidences, and private conversations of thousands of innocent employees. The press didn’t bother with those e-mails — and we know nothing of any personal tragedies that resulted from their friends’ searches. They, too, were caught in the blast radius of the larger attack.

The Internet is more than a way for us to get information or connect with our friends. It has become a place for us to store our personal information. Our e-mail is in the cloud. So are our address books and calendars, whether we use Google, Apple, Microsoft, or someone else. We store to-do lists on Remember the Milk and keep our jottings on Evernote. Fitbit and Jawbone store our fitness data. Flickr, Facebook, and iCloud are the repositories for our personal photos. Facebook and Twitter store many of our intimate conversations.

It often feels like everyone is collecting our personal information. Smartphone apps collect our location data. Google can draw a surprisingly intimate portrait of what we’re thinking about from our Internet searches. Dating sites (even those less titillating than Ashley Madison), medical-information sites, and travel sites all have detailed portraits of who we are and where we go. Retailers save records of our purchases, and those databases are stored on the Internet. Data brokers have detailed dossiers that can include all of this and more.

Many people don’t think about the security implications of this information existing in the first place. They might be aware that it’s mined for advertising and other marketing purposes. They might even know that the government can get its hands on such data, with different levels of ease depending on the country. But it doesn’t generally occur to people that their personal information might be available to anyone who wants to look.

In reality, all these networks are vulnerable to organizational doxing. Most aren’t any more secure than Ashley Madison or Sony were. We could wake up one morning and find detailed information about our Uber rides, our Amazon purchases, our subscriptions to pornographic websites — anything we do on the Internet — published and available. It’s not likely, but it’s certainly possible.

Right now, you can search the Ashley Madison database for any e-mail address, and read that person’s details. You can search the Sony data dump and read the personal chatter of people who work for the company. Tempting though it may be, there are many reasons not to search for people you know on Ashley Madison. The one I most want to focus on is context. An e-mail address might be in that database for many reasons, not all of them lascivious. But if you find your spouse or your friend in there, you don’t necessarily know the context. It’s the same with the Sony employee e-mails, and the data from whatever company is doxed next. You’ll be able to read the data, but without the full story, it can be hard to judge the meaning of what you’re reading.

Even so, of course people are going to look. Reporters will search for public figures. Individuals will search for people they know. Secrets will be read and passed around. Anguish and embarrassment will result. In some cases, lives will be destroyed.

Privacy isn’t about hiding something. It’s about being able to control how we present ourselves to the world. It’s about maintaining a public face while at the same time being permitted private thoughts and actions. It’s about personal dignity.

Organizational doxing is a powerful attack against organizations, and one that will continue because it’s so effective. And while the network owners and the hackers might be battling it out for their own reasons, sometimes it’s our data that’s the prize. Having information we thought private turn out to be public and searchable is what happens when the hackers win. It’s a result of the information age that hasn’t been fully appreciated, and one that we’re still not prepared to face.

This essay previously appeared on the Atlantic.

Posted on September 9, 2015 at 8:42 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.