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Popular encrypted email standards are unsafe

14 May 2018, 07:12 | Cameron Gross

Uninstall PGP: EFF warns of exploit that may reveal plaintext of encrypted emails

Computer encryption

Security experts are warning PGP users to disable tools that automatically decrypt PGP-encrypted email after the discovery of a critical vulnerability which could help attackers read protected emails.

The researchers meant to hold off on full publication until Tuesday, May 15, though the white paper was published earlier due to the embargo being broken. The digital privacy watchdog also suggested the use of alternatives, such as Signal, for the time being as the implications of the vulnerabilities described in the paper are better understood, and hopefully mitigated, by the cybersecurity community.

The use of PGP for secure communications has been advocated, among others, by Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on pervasive electronic surveillance at the US National Security Agency before fleeing to Russian Federation.

Sebastian Schinzel, professor of computer science at M√ľnster University investigated the flaw, tweeting that full details of the vulnerability will be available from 15 May.

PGP uses an algorithm to generate a "hash", or mathematical summary, of a user's name and other information.

European researchers have found that the popular PGP and S/MIME email encryption standards are vulnerable to being hacked, leading them to urge people to disable and uninstall them immediately.




By comparison, the Gadget Attack affects a much wider variety of mail clients, including Microsoft's Outlook, but ranges in efficacy based on whether it's used against PGP or S/MIME encryption.

"EFAIL abuses active content of HTML emails, for example externally loaded images or styles, to exfiltrate plaintext through requested URLs".

"They might reveal the plaintext of encrypted emails, including encrypted emails sent in the past", researchers said.

The attack relies on contacting the same person that sent the encrypted email in the first place.

While the requirement that attackers have access to previously sent e-mails is a an extremely high bar, the entire objective of both PGP and S/MIME is to protect users against this possibility.

UPDATE 2: Because some researchers started disclosing details about the vulnerability ahead of schedule, the efail.de website is now live, along with the research paper, both containing more info on the EFAIL vulnerability. This is then encrypted with the sender's private "key" and decrypted by the receiver using a separate public key. However, the researchers have confirmed the exploitable vulnerabilities only exist for email users. PGP and S/MIME are said to have flaws that could be exploited to get access to any incoming or outgoing emails on platforms that use either of the two encryption tools.



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