People ask us this question every day. Can you make my (name of big name email service) email account secure? A better question to ask is if any email can ever truly be private or secure.
Our opinion is email can NEVER be completely private and secure — that’s because of the way email was designed and operates and it’s been that way for more than 30 years. When you send an email, you are actually sending a text message from your computer to another server, an email server somewhere on the internet that can be read by anyone along the way. In the trusting world of the early internet, most people were kind and trustworthy, so this wasn’t a problem. Gentlemen (and gentlewomen) don’t read other gentlemen’s email. Unfortunately, the internet has slid down along with society.
How Email Works
When you send an email, there is an entire system of email servers on the internet, run by many different people you don’t know, that move your email from your computer to your recipient going between many different places along the way. Here’s a diagram (below) of what this network looks like. On the left are your desktop, mobile and laptop that send email. All the way to the right is your recipient, a desktop computer. As you can see, the email travels through many different servers to get from the sender to the recipient. Note: I’m simplifying things a bit here.
We know personally that email has been gathered since 1997 at nearly all major ISPs in data rooms run by the NSA. If you are outside the US, you should assume that your government’s security services are doing the same thing. There’s a lot of valuable business and political information available in all that email, and it’s guaranteed to be intercepted and saved. You won’t know anything about it because it’s transparent to you. (unless it gets blocked or censored)
Because email is just a plain text format, anyone along the way can read it. Newer servers now encrypt the email contents between the servers, but not every server supports this, which makes it of limited value. Even if it’s encrypted, you don’t control the key and it’s usually SSL encryption (that we believe is broken), so that encryption isn’t worth very much. There’s no telling what kind of servers you are going through and it’s not uncommon to go through 15-30 different email servers before your message gets to your recipient. It’s just not secure because there is no control over the end-to-end transmission of your message. It’s difficult for the sender to know the receiver got the email, unless they reply to it.
Email is Like a Postcard
When you send an email, the sender and receiver plus time and date is all out in the open. Even if your message is encrypted, this “header” information is there for anyone to see, here’s an example:
Return-path: <email@example.com> Envelope-to: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Delivery-date: Wed, 19 Mar 2014 17:44:10 -0400 Received: from [188.8.131.52] (port=17051) by mx02.safemail.is with esmtp (Exim 4.82) (envelope-from <email@example.com>) id 1WQOHQ-0005kN-L4; Wed, 19 Mar 2014 17:44:09 -0400 Message-ID: <firstname.lastname@example.org> From: =?koi8-r?B?IvPQydLJxM/OIg==?= <email@example.com> To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: =?koi8-r?B?7sHU1dLBzNjO2cUg0NLPxNXL1NkgySDLz9PNxdTJy8Eu?= Date: Thu, 20 Mar 2014 01:45:15 +0400 MIME-Version: 1.0 Content-Type: text/plain; charset="koi8-r" Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit X-Priority: 3 X-MSMail-Priority: Normal X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook Express 5.50.4927.1200 X-MimeOLE: Produced By Microsoft MimeOLE V5.50.4927.1200 X-Spam-Status: No, score= X-Spam-Score: X-Spam-Bar: X-Ham-Report: X-Spam-Flag: NO
There’s actually quite a bit of valuable information in the header, you can connect who is talking to whom and when, just like the “meta-data” from a phone call and so on. People will know who you are doing business with or communicating with. Let’s say you are visiting a psychiatrist or a cancer doctor, or buying some long term food to store in your home, or maybe staying at a hotel in another city or attending a rally to protest something. That’s all recorded FOREVER and even if the message is very strongly encrypted all this information is out in the open. It’s very valuable marketing data and also could be useful to spies.
Email Can be Blocked and Censored
Think about it, if someone can read all the information in the header, they can potentially block emails from that person to you or even change the content of the files. We’ve actually seen this happen numerous times with Before It’s News, where we receive many sensitive emails from people who are whistle-blowers and human rights activists. We’ve tested this and seen that certain mail gets through and other mail doesn’t. It depend on the sender, receiver, subject and contents of the message. You don’t miss what you don’t see.
Our Future Solution Will Use Very Strong Encryption and Anti-blocking Technology
We think the solution to this problem is to gradually stop using email altogether. Our real time messaging will be redesigned in the future to provide an email like service and provide a gateway that will be backwards compatible with today’s email. It will look and feel like email, but it will be real time and not go through the email network infrastructure that is widely known to be compromised. You’ll still be able to communicate with people who use email, but they will receive messages from you on a secure web page.
We’ll still offer the best encryption possible with our standard email service, but we will be recommending that people migrate to the real time messaging as we develop more email like functionality. The encryption is extremely strong, and there are many features like message retraction or destruction and receipt of delivery and reading. It’s also a lot faster because it’s designed to be real time, like a phone call or chat, not delayed like an email.