You’ve Got Email…Problems

Written by

One of the most contentious elections in modern history is finally over. The candidates and their surrogates mercilessly attacked one another’s character and reputations, inflicting wounds that will take a long time to heal. But beyond the personal reputations that suffered, there was something else that took an incredible beating: email technology.

The inherent shortcomings of aging email technology was put into the spotlight at every stage of the campaign: hackers compromised the Democratic National Committee’s mail servers, while Hillary Clinton’s decision to set up a private email server was the source of an FBI investigation that showed how poorly email is protected. Even WikiLeaks got involved, again by disseminating embarrassing and possibly incriminating emails from various candidates.

Also, Salesforce’s mergers and acquisition target list was leaked because Marc Benioff shared it with Colin Powell, who sits on his board mimicking a similar scenario from yesteryear when Snapchat’s board materials were compromised because Evan Spiegel shared them with his board member, Michael Lynton, which was leaked during the Sony hack.

It certainly seemed to a lot of outside observers that using email may have finally become more trouble than it’s worth. If presidential candidates and major national organizations can have their emails so easily compromised, what hope do normal people have at keeping their private conversations safe when using that platform?

One could rightly question if a technology first created in 1970 should still be so popular forty years later. In truth, it was never designed to function as the global communications platform that it is today. Security was an afterthought added many years later, and clumsily so in most cases. And newer technologies like instant messaging offer a more interactive, more instanteous experience.

Yet, despite the flaws, people love using email. It’s incredibly simple, and open to just about anyone in the world. Additionally, being able to forward mail to third parties, easily inviting new people into existing threads and its many other usability features trump security concerns for most users. The technology is so popular that it continues to add new users. By the end of 2019 there are expected to be 2.9 billion active email addresses worldwide, sending 162 billion emails daily. In comparison, messaging platform Slack has a million daily users.

It may have been put through the wringer recently, but email will continue to be one of the world’s most ubiquitous communications platforms. More people are now aware of its risks and flaws, but want to keep using it regardless. For those 2.9 billion of us, the good news is that all of email’s problems are fixable. We can eliminate much of the risk and improve the functionality of the technology without giving up the qualities that make it so loved.

In a lot of ways, getting more features and security out of email can be done by mimicking the characteristics found in the delivery of physical mail. For example, a paper letter is wrapped in an envelope before being sent, which keeps its contents secret. While not tamper-proof, it does make it very tamper evident. Going back even farther in time, wax seals were a popular way to provide proof that a letter had arrived unopened. George Washington is said to have used a wax-sealed letter each time he employed a new courier. He would send the sealed letter to a colleague using the deliveryman. When delivered and opened, the letter simply read, “If you are reading this, and the seal was unbroken, you can trust this man with your correspondence.”

Email can be improved by adding tamper-evident features too, just like Washington’s letters. Recipients should be able to tell if they are the first people to open an email, or if it has been snooped somewhere along the way.

For even more security, encryption can be employed, though this has been clumsily bolted on to email in the past, and generally required both parties to possess encryption keys. The complexity of traditional encryption tools like PGP and SMIME have proven too difficult for widespread, mainstream use while email can be designed so that it can be encrypted and still sent to anyone, even a new contact without a prearranged encryption key.

It simply requires that the program verify that the intended destination is the email address put into the send field. The program can then decrypt the message without any user intervention. Email used this way maintains all the properties that make it so useful, but layers security on top in an unobtrusive way.

Finally, there is no reason for most people to keep hundreds of thousands of emails. Doing that just provides a much richer target should the system ever be compromised. A modern email system should be able to automatically delete and completely purge all traces of an email from the system after 90 days, or whatever increment of time the user feels comfortable setting. Also, it should be designed so that any email that is deleted by the user is completely scrubbed, not just on the host system but anywhere else where it might reside.

The marriage of physical mail’s security properties with the convenience of email is possible. There is no reason why users can’t enjoy the best aspects of both worlds. Just look past the 2016 election and back to George Washington.  If email is rehabilitated in that manner, it can restore the virtue of the platform as a communications tool alongside its inherent convenience.

What’s hot on Infosecurity Magazine?