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Comments on this post are welcome and strongly encouraged.

Service providers such as Gmail, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter…all of these, they need to offer users a data encryption option that does the following:

  1. It disables the password recovery system, so that no one else can exploit it or any weak links to it to get into our accounts, but if we “forget” our password then we can’t either; and
  2. Our passphrase encrypts a larger key which encrypts our non-public data on their servers with 256-bit AES encryption.

In light of the fact that General Petraeus was brought down by someone other than him and a personally trusted party accessing the data in his Gmail account, I think the users need to be handed the keys to our accounts and service providers need to give them up. By far the largest method for hackers to steal highly important or sensitive data is the “forgot password?” link at any given website.Our email accounts are almost universally used as a skeleton key to our other accounts. Mat Honan’s Gmail, Twitter, and Apple ID accounts were all hacked into in the space of an hour this way, and the hackers deleted all of the data on his MacBook, iPhone, and iPad when they got in.

For services that offer this encryption option, there should be an additional option to unlink all email accounts as well. There are some services that exist already which allow you to open an account for which an email account is optional, but they’re not very common and typically are also obscure and small.

Obviously, this is something that won’t do much with services like Facebook and Twitter, because in order for the service to show tweets or posts to anyone else, they have to be readable by the service provider itself. However, if you’re on Facebook and change a post or picture to be visible to “only me,” the media should be encrypted with your encryption key, then all unencrypted copies deleted from the provider’s servers, including its content delivery network.

Another feature that absolutely needs to be in place is for all mail service providers to support mail delivery and hopping over SSL or TLS, so that plaintext email does not go over the wire without any encryption. If email is encrypted on Gmail and encrypted on Yahoo! Mail, then the end-to-end link between them also needs to have encryption. Ultimately, the amount of time an email spends stored or transmitted as plaintext should be minimized. It would also be nice if mail applications such as Mozilla Thunderbird had built-in encryption for the entire user profile (stored/locally cached mail, stored account passwords, configuration settings, etc.) utilizing a master password, though it seems that most people point to workarounds that don’t ask Mozilla to add such support directly into Thunderbird. (What if I don’t want to install full disk encryption software, or can’t do so, or want to use Thunderbird in a portable fashion on a flash drive?)

Yet another feature that would be very nice to have is a “lockdown” feature, where you can log into your encryption-enabled account on a service like Facebook or Twitter, go to some sort of security settings page, press a button called “lock down account,” confirm that you really meant to lock down the account, and all media that is stored in your account automatically gets changed to “only me” privacy and encrypted in one shot, plus any attached “escrow” methods of password retrieval such as cell phones or email addresses are rendered unusable. If you have reason to believe that your data needs to be locked down quickly, having a feature like this is critica

The biggest downside to this system is that if you lose or forget your password, you lose everything. The most common response to this “downside” will be “that’s a great feature to have!” and I strongly agree: if I don’t want anyone accessing my account, I desperately need to be able to lose the password with no means of recovery. However, another downside is that if someone gains access to your account, they can lock you out of your own data in the same way that you can lock others out. The most obvious answer to this would be some form of two-factor authentication, but adding TFA to the mix would imply such things as if you lose your second factor, you can’t lock down your account or change your encryption password, so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

The major reason that “encrypt everything” has not been adopted by knowledgeable users is that it’s not available as an option, and where it is available, you have to jump through ridiculous hoops to get it set up and working. Things like the HTTPS Everywhere extension and Google switching its services to use HTTPS by default are steps in the right direction. The fact that anyone can get online and dig up your maiden name, social security number, city you were born in, first vehicle you owned, and much more within minutes and for small fees means that password recovery options with security questions and whatnot are the equivalent of locking your five deadbolts and leaving the key under the WELCOME mat. Furthermore, if the FBI, CIA, NSA, or some other three-letter agency decides they want to read your mail without your knowledge, there’s nothing at all stopping them from doing so.

One of the big arguments against encryption is that it allows bad people to hide bad things. News flash: bad people can use encryption even if you DON’T allow it. The only thing that happens when you don’t have encryption available is that GOOD people can’t protect themselves and their privacy so easily, but the bad guys have an extraordinary motivation to jump through the extra hoops required and certainly will do so to avoid being caught. This argument against providing encryption has no substance in a practical world.

In summary: Service providers need to give us the keys to our data.

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This has moved to the snd2remote page on my personal website.

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