Choosing Your Email Program
Email has changed significantly over since it became an important communication tool for individuals.
Much like your choice of a web browser, your choice of an email program (or app) makes a difference.
The Internet only stays healthy if we trust it as a safe place — to explore, transact, connect, and create. Our privacy and security online is under constant threat. But there's something you can do about it: get informed, protect yourself, and make your voice heard. A healthy Internet depends on you.
Check your email program's privacy settings and disable automatic downloading of images where your program supports it.
Email Security Issues
Email remains one of the most important forms of communications today. It is convenient and is now available “on the go” via your smart phone.
However, you don't want to jeopardize your mail, your security or trade your privacy for ease-of-use. Don't use unsupported or obsolete software.
EFAIL Encryption Issue
EFAIL allows someone to break email encryption under certain circumstances. At issue are email and encryption protocols in use and their aging status.
In a nutshell, EFAIL abuses active content of HTML emails, for example externally loaded images or styles, to exfiltrate plaintext through requested URLs. To create these exfiltration channels, the attacker first needs access to the encrypted emails, for example, by eavesdropping on network traffic, compromising email accounts, email servers, backup systems or client computers. The emails could even have been collected years ago.
— Mozilla Thunderbird Blog
See the European EFAIL documentation includes details about the vulnerability and short-, medium- and long-term solutions.
Thunderbird, Outlook & AppleMail Vulnerable
Thunderbird, Outlook and AppleMail are vulnerable to the EFAIL encryption vulnerability if you're using S/MIME encryption or PGP encryption (through the Enigmail add-on in Thunderbird) giving the attacker access to your encrypted emails.
- Thunderbird vulnerability details from Mozilla. Version 52.9.0 (or later) provides a complete fix of the EFAIL vulnerability.
The Solution: Use External Encryption
The solution is to turn off internal encryption and disable HTML rendering in your email program. If you require encryption, use external encryption.
If you're worried about someone using this attack on your emails, disabling HTML rendering in your email client is a good way to mitigate risk.
The Cause and Potential Long-Term Solutions
Long term solutions will involve examining weaknesses in email.
- EFAIL: Outdated crypto standards are to blame.
- EFAIL: HTML mails have no security concept and are to blame.
It is very convenient to be able to attach documents and photos to your email.
Unless you're expecting such a document, DON'T open it, just delete it.
There are several forms that such messages can take:
- It could be a notice that your account is about to be closed.
- It could also be a bogus notification about a prize, delivery or gift (legacy).
- It could contain an attached “invoice” requesting payment of fees.
Be especially wary of any email that warns you to respond immediately. The intention is to scare you into acting quickly, without thinking.
At the very least these sorts of messages ask you to fraudulently provide personal information to an unauthorized recipient such as account passwords Watch out for embedded forms directing you to log into a recognized account like your Google, Apple or Microsoft account.
Malicious Office Attachments
Be wary of attachments in emails that you didn't expect, especially Microsoft Office documents.
Malicious Microsoft Office attachments are more common than malicious batch scripts and PowerShell scripts.
— Tech Republic
If you open the document, you will probably infect your computer/device with malware.
Emotet is Back
The Emotet botnet has returned with improvements designed to get past security protections and your common sense.
A malicious email…attached a Word document that had a massive amount of extraneous data added to the end. As a result, the file was more than 500MB in size, big enough to prevent some security products from being able to scan the contents.
Another evasion trick spotted in the attached document: excerpts from the Herman Melville classic novel Moby Dick, which appear in a white font over a white page so the text isn't readable. Some security products automatically flag Microsoft Office files containing just a macro and an image. The invisible text is designed to evade such software while not arousing the suspicion of the target.
When opened, the Word documents present a graphic that says the content can't be accessed unless the user clicks the “enable content” button.
— Ars Technica
Of course, the minute you follow that instruction and disable the protection against malicous macros, your computer will be infected with malware.
How to Verify Legitimacy
If you're unsure, verify the legitimacy of the document by calling the company using the contact information found on a recent invoice or statement.
- Never use the contact information provided in the email.
- Never click on links within the email (links can be faked).
Just because there are no attachments, doesn't mean the email is safe.
Links embedded within the email itself (or requests to open a Google Doc online) can also be sources of infection.
Sometimes you'll see short links (URLs) like bitly.com/16M0Io3.
While this technique is handy for avoiding long addresses that wrap in the email window (or use too many characters on Twitter), it can also hide the destination of a malicious link.
Learn more about the various shortened URLs and how to deal with them.
Email programs have a number of recognized vulnerabilities which will depend upon the program and the platform (operating system) you are running it on. Those that wish to minimize spam (unsolicited junk email) should avoid software with these challenges.
Obsolete Programs Dangerous
Internet Explorer Message Viewers
Some legacy Windows email programs use Internet Explorer components for displaying images and HTML (styled) messages. These programs are subject to the same vulnerabilities that Internet Explorer has.
Internet Explorer isn't the default browser on many Windows systems, especially with the arrival of Edge in Windows 10. However, by embedding an Internet Explorer zero-day and delivering it through Word, an attacker can hit targets who don't have IE set by default.
[M]any applications that were once exploited in the browser can also be accessed using a Word document.
— Dark Reading
More recent versions use Microsoft Word, which has its own vulnerabilities.
If a remote image (one not attached to the email, but downloaded from the sender's server) is automatically displayed you risk the fact that the sender might be tracking whether the image is downloaded to your computer.
Some spammers use an identifiable image to determine which users actually open the mail in order to verify whether an email address is valid and read. Many are only 1 pixel in size — invisible to viewers.
Superhuman has Creepy Features
A new product, Superhuman has the ability to track not only the first time you open it, but every time plus where it was opened. But that's not all:
We've built Undo Send right into Superhuman. Just click Undo, and it will be as if the email never sent.
The creepiness of these features has been challenged (read Mike Davidson's blog on the issue) but the clear lesson is that everyone should block external images in their email as well as return receipts.
…[Y]ou can still see exactly when and how many times someone has opened your email, complete with multiple timestamps — you just can't see the location anymore. That, to me, is not sufficient. “A little less creepy” is still creepy.
— Mike Industries
So many people have moved to using “free” cloud-based webmail programs that the market has virtually collapsed for independent stand-alone email programs.
Free Email Threatens Your Privacy
The biggest issue is privacy.
Services like Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) can sift through your emails to build a profile about you which can then be used to more effectively sell advertising.
Even if companies claim not to use your emails for profiling, privacy policies can change in a heartbeat.
Running Google's free Gmail while surfing the Web (especially while using the Chrome browser) will provide even more information about yourself, helping to create a more accurate profile to serve ads to. Google never forgets!
Privacy Not a Priority
The Yahoo! data breach shows that your privacy was NOT a priority.
The company suggests the stolen information could include personal credentials such names, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, hashed passwords (the vast majority with bcrypt) and even security questions and answers.
Not only was that enough information to commit identity theft but Yahoo! took several years before telling anyone.
Security breaches are increasingly common, each revealing more about you to hackers and scammers.
Combining User Data
Google has become too powerful, purchasing existing companies with expertise in areas they traditionally didn't have access, then combining it with the users' data from all their companies to create powerful search and advertising profiles.
Don't Sign-in To Google
Chrome does this, in part, by keeping the user's data on their servers rather than on the user's computer so you have access to their data from any number of computers, phones and tablets.
More Effective Targeted Ads
This is convenient but eliminates your ability to fully control your own information. Google uses this information to serve more appealing ads based upon what you've viewed with Chrome.
If you've had difficulty getting Gmail to work smoothly in your email program, you're not alone.
Google wants you to leave a browser window open with Gmail running. By knowing the sites you're visiting they can present “more relevant” ads (i.e., ads that you're more likely to click on based upon your surfing history). Of course, if you're running Chrome, Google already knows this.
StartMail (US$59.95 per year) provides an alternative
Everyone uses email, but sending regular email is like sending a postcard — it makes snooping very easy! That's why we built StartMail from scratch: a total solution for protecting your email privacy that includes features like extra-secure data storage, disposable email addresses, and an ownership that will resist unwarranted intrusion.