In the most popular encryption method found a hole

Nichole VegaMay 15, 2018

A research team of nine academics from the Electronic Frontier Foundation has discovered critical vulnerabilities in two email encryption tools.

The most serious vulnerabilities have resided in Thunderbird, macOS Mail, and Outlook for more than 10 years and remain unfixed at the moment, the researchers said. Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIME) is an alternative end-to-end encryption standard that is used to secure corporate email communication.

PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) is a data encryption method sometimes added to programs that send and receive email. The Foundation which has been in communication with the researchers has advised users to "temporarily stop sending and especially reading PGP-encrypted email".

Full details of the Efail flaw have now been made public ahead of the original schedule.

Mikko Hypponen, a global security expert, pointed out that even if users follow the EFF advice this does not necessarily do anything to protect older email messages. That won't fully close the flaw, but it will cut off the primary way of exploiting it. It's not that simple, though - before doing that a hacker must find the encrypted emails they want by spying on network traffic and then compromising email accounts, servers, backup systems or client computers. However, the embargo was broken by German news outlet Suddeuteschen Zeitung who posted the findings in the early hours of Monday. According to the researchers, both CFB and CBC enable an attacker to reorder, remove or insert ciphertext blocks, or to perform meaningful plaintext modifications without the encryption key.

The researchers said on a website devoted to this vulnerability that "EFAIL abuses active content of HTML emails, for example externally loaded images or styles, to exfiltrate plaintext through requested URLs".

"[The researchers] figured out mail clients which don't properly check for decryption errors and also follow links in HTML mails". Then the emails are changed in a particular way and sent to a victim.

In the wake of the new research, Green tells Süddeutsche Zeitung: "This is another bullet hole in an already perforated vehicle".

"These steps are intended as a temporary, conservative stopgap until the immediate risk of the exploit has passed and been mitigated against by the wider community", the EFF said.

But some think the vulnerability warning is overblown.

EFF's recommendation: If you use PGP or S/MIME, disable them, and uninstall the tools that decrypt them. That's because EFAIL can be stopped by using authenticated encryption; OpenPGP started to support authenticated encryption in 2001.

"This is bad because the people who use PGP use it for a reason", he told the BBC. CounterMail, Hushmail and Mailfence all use OpenPGP.

It wasn't that long ago that OEMs were being warned to share details of vulnerabilities in their chips via PGP so hackers couldn't evesdrop. Erm.

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