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New Vulnerability May Expose Encrypted Emails 

By May 31, 2018June 8th, 2022Cybersecurity

Security researchers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have discovered a dangerous new email vulnerability called “Efail.”  Exploiting this new email vulnerability would allow hackers to decrypt emails encrypted with either PGP or S/MIME – including emails that were sent several years earlier.  Both of these encryption tools are commonly used by politicians, journalists and other professionals who need a secure means of electronic communication. Since the standards are so well established, they’re used widely and regarded as fool-proof.  Sadly, that’s no longer the case.

EFF researchers had this to say about the newly discovered vulnerability:

“In a nutshell, Efail abuses active content of HTML emails (for example, externally loaded images or styles) to exfiltrate plaintext through requested URLs.  The attacker changes an encrypted email in a particular way and sends this changed encrypted email to the victim.  The victim’s email client decrypts the email and loads any external content, thus exfiltrating the plaintext to the attacker.”

In simpler terms, it’s about as bad as it could possibly get.  Once a hacker has access to your email account, they can use the embedded HTML tags inside your mail to force your email system to decrypt those messages so the hackers can see exactly what they contain.

EFF’s recommendation is that if you rely on either PGP or S/MIME for email encryption, your best bet is to simply disable them, and uninstall the tool or tools used to decrypt those messages.

It should be noted however, that there are others in the security community who disagree with this assessment.  A spokesman for ProtonMail tweeted out the following response:

“Efail is a prime example of irresponsible disclosure.  There is no responsibility in hyping the store to @EFF and mainstream media and getting an irresponsible recommendation published (Disable PGP), ignoring the fact that many (Engimail, etc.) are already patched.”

Despite the divided opinion, if it’s something you’re concerned about, you can neatly side step the problem by simply opting for plain text messages, rather than using HTML-emails.

Jason Manteiga

Jason J. Manteiga, Vice President of Olmec Systems, has been part of the company for over the past 20 years. He believes that having a great work environment and supportive team, is the ultimate key to success. Since being in the IT realm for over 25 years, Jason, along with Olmec Systems, has been on the Inc. 5000 “List of America’s Fastest Growing Private Companies” and Channel Futures MSP 501 “Top Managed Service Providers in North America,” along with other awards and nominations. Jason earned his Bachelor Degree in Information Systems from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He also holds certifications in Microsoft MCSE, VMWare VCP, and Cisco CCNA. In his spare time, Jason is a contributor for The Center for Social & Legal Research (Privacy Exchange) and a member of the Morris County Chamber of Commerce. His hobbies include cycling and kayaking. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife, two daughters and son.