European researchers warn against risks of popular encrypted email standards

14 May, 2018, 20:42 | Author: Camille Rivera
  • Daniel Sambraus—EyeEm  Getty Images

"Our advice, which mirrors that of the researchers, is to immediately disable and/or uninstall tools that automatically decrypt PGP-encrypted email", the EFF said.

On Monday morning, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reported that Efail is able to expose HTML emails encrypted with PGP and S/MIME encryption programs - even those that were sent years ago. "We devise working attacks for both OpenPGP and S/MIME encryption, and show that exfiltration channels exist for 23 of the 35 tested S/MIME email clients and 10 of the 28 tested OpenPGP email clients".

In a paper published Monday, the group outlined a proof-of-concept process for how attackers could exploit weaknesses in how email clients like Apple Mail, iOS Mail, and Mozilla Thunderbird manage HTML in messages. "Having used PGP since 1993, this sounds baaad".

A group of nine researchers has discovered a critical vulnerability in the systems end-to-end email encryption using OpenPGP and S/MIME. As there are "currently no reliable fixes for the vulnerability", the researchers are advising users to immediately disable the encryption within individual email clients and use other methods to send their secure data for now.

The research paper details a method whereby the simple omission of not closing the URL with quotes can enable an attacker to get access to the decrypted email contents.




Anyone who actively wants their email communication to be secure and private - and uses common email security plugins - should take notice.

Security researchers, backed up the EFF, have issued a warning over PGP and S/MIME encryption. That's because EFAIL can be stopped by using authenticated encryption; OpenPGP started to support authenticated encryption in 2001.

Professor Schinzel is a member of a research team consisting of a long list of respected security researchers, and which has been responsible for uncovering a number of cryptographic vulnerabilities. The newly found vulnerability has the potential to reveal encrypted emails in plaintext, including emails sent in the past.

It recommended that users switch for the time being to secure messaging app Signal for sensitive communications. (S/MIME is more typically used to protect corporate emails, which means its use is up to the IT department, not individual workers.) We're still in the "knee-jerk reaction" phase of the response cycle.

It advised users to disable the use of active content, such as HTML code and the loading of external content, and to secure their email servers against external access.

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