Internet Security Threats: Who Can Read Your Email?
Before being able to choose a secure Internet communication system, you need to understand the threats to your security.
Since the beginning of the Internet there has been a naive assumption on the part of most email users that the only people who are reading their email are the people they are sending it to. After all, with billions of emails and gigabytes of data moving over the Internet every day, who would be able to find their single email in such a flood of data?
Wake-up and smell the coffee! Our entire economy is now information based, and the majority of that mission critical information is now flowing through the Internet in some form, from emails and email attachments, to corporate FTP transmissions and instant messages.
Human beings, especially those strange creatures with a criminal mind, look for every possible advantage in a dog eat dog world, even if that advantage includes prying into other peoples’ mail or even assuming your identity. The privacy of your Internet communications has now become the front line in a struggle for the soul of the Internet.
The New Generation Packet Sniffers:
At the beginning of 2001, most computer security professionals began to become aware of an alarming new threat to Internet security, the proliferation of cheap, easy to use packet sniffer software. Anyone with this new software, a high school education, and network access can easily eavesdrop on email messages and FTP transmissions.
Software packages such as Caspa 3.0 or PassDetect – Ace Password Sniffer automate the task of eavesdropping to the point were if you send an email messages over the Internet with the phrase “Credit Card”, it’s almost a certainty that someone, somewhere will capture it, attachments and all.
A good example of this new class of software is called MSN Sniffer, also from Effetech, and it highlights the “party line” openness of today’s LAN and Internet environments. Just like old telephone party lines, MSN sniffer lets you listen-in on other people’s conversations, just like picking up another phone on a party line.
On their web site, Effetech advertises MSN Sniffer as:
“a handy network utility to capture MSN chat on a network. It records MSN conversations automatically. All intercepted messages can be saved as HTML files for later processing and analyzing. It is very easy to make it to work. Just run the MSN Sniffer on any computer on your network, and start to capture. It will record any conversation from any PC on the network.”
Just as the Internet has been flooded by a deluge of spam messages after the introduction of cheap, easy-to-use spam generation software, the same effect is now taking place with sniffer software. The major difference is that, unlike spam, Internet eavesdropping is totally invisible, and ten times as deadly. How much of the identity theft being reported today is a direct result of Internet eavesdropping? Its hard to tell, but with the every growing dependency by individuals and corporations on Internet communications, opportunities to “capture” your sensitive data abound.
Most FTP transmission are unencrypted!
As of November 2003, the majority of corporate FTP transmissions are still unencrypted (unencrypted is geek speak for “in the clear” ) and almost all email communications take place “in the clear”. Many email and FTP transmissions travel over 30 or more “hops” to make its way from the sender and receiver. Each one of these hops is a separate network, often owned by a different Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Any Idiot in the Middle
Even a well run corporation must still primarily rely on trusting its employees, contractors and suppliers to respect the privacy of the data flowing over its networks. With the new sniffer technology, all it takes is one “idiot in the middle”, and your security is compromised. It could be the admin assistant sitting in the cubical next to you, or a network assistant working for one of the many ISPs your data will travel over, but somewhere, someone is listening. Maybe all he is looking for is his next stock trading idea, or maybe he wants to take over your eBay account so he can sell a nonexistent laptop to some unsuspecting “sucker” using your good name. its all happening right now, at some of the most respected companies in the world.
Access to your network doesn’t have to come from a malicious or curious employee-many Internet worms, Trojans and viruses are designed to open up security holes on a PC so that other software can be installed. Once a hacker has access to one computer in your network, or one computer on your ISP’s network, he can then use a sniffer to analyze all the traffic on the network.
So I’ll password-protect my files, right?
You’re getting warmer, but this still isn’t going to do the trick. It’s a good way to stop packet sniffers from searching for key words in a file, but unfortunately it is not as secure as you might think.
So what can I do about it?
OK, so now that you understand the threat, what can you do about it?
Stop using the Internet? – More than a few professionals are returning to phone calls and faxes for all their important communications.
Complain to your IT department? – If you have an IT department in your company this is a good place to start. But did the spam mail stop when you complained about it to your LAN administrator? Unfortunately he is almost as helpless as you are.
Encrypt your communications with PKI, etc. – For email this is a bit drastic, and can be very expensive, especially since you will need to install a key on each PC and coordinate this with the receivers of your email messages, your IT organization, etc.
This is by far the easiest and most cost effective way to protect your email attachments, or replace FTP transmissions. It takes out the “idiot in the middle” with a very clever solution.
The proper approach to Security
I believe that encrypted email is the easiest out-of-the box secure communication system available.
They approach Internet data transfer security in a unique way. Until their tool was first released in December of 2002, all secure email and file transmission systems relied on encrypting the data during the tried and true method of “upload, store, and forward”. When you send an email, it and any documents attached to it are first transmitted to one or more intermediate servers. These mail server store the documents and then attempt to forward it to the receivers email server. To secure the transmission of the email requires either the servers to use extra encryption software technology, or forces the individual sender and receivers to install encryption software and their associated keys, or both. Not only is this a costly and time consuming exercise but it also often fails to protect the data over the complete path of the transmission.
What do you do if the receiver is in another company and doesn’t have any encryption software installed? What if his company is using a difference encryption standard? Ignoring the complexity of existing secure email and FTP systems their biggest failings continue to be the “idiot in the middle”. From a nosey email or FTP server administrator, to a hungry co-worker, to an incompetent who lets a hacker have free reign of their server, if your sensitive documents are stored on a server maintained by someone else then that person, or his company, can view your documents.
The secure email approach is creative, yet simple. Their technology utilizes existing email and instant messaging systems in the same way you use an envelope to send a letter through the US postal service, as a wrapper for the real content. We assume that EVERYONE can read what is in the email, so we don’t send your documents in the email at all. In fact your documents never leave your PC, until the receiver of the email requests it.
How it works:
Secure email lets you ticket the file you want to email, and then instead of sending the file in the email, sends a “FileTicket” instead. The file is only transmitted to the receiver of the email when he opens the FileTicket and is “authenticated”. After the receiver is authenticated the file is transmitted through an SSL (secure socket layer) tunnel directly from the sender’s PC to the receiver’s PC through our secure relay servers. SSL is the same security used by banks and is impossible for packet sniffers to penetrate. With secure email each packet is encrypted using a 1024 bit key and is delivered to your receiver through his browser. Encrypted email lets your communications go un-detected by any sniffer, and removes the “idiot in the middle” threat by never storing the data on an intermediate server. More over, secure email is the easiest way to secure your sensitive data transmission in both an Internet and corporate LAN environment.
Take Action Now!
Internet communications security is one of the most important privacy issues we face today. It might feel a bit paranoid for a law-abiding citizen to encrypt his email communications and computer document transmissions, but would you send a customers contract through normal mail without an envelope?