Re: Thunderbird and end-to-end email encryption – summary of responses and proposed policy

Bron Gondwana brong at
Tue Sep 1 13:00:37 UTC 2015

We're mostly "there" already with that.  Most email between servers is encrypted
with SSL.  The bit that isn't there is that certificate validation isn't common yet,
and fallback to plaintext if a MITM refuses the STARTTLS.

Facebook did some research a little while ago:

And it got a lot better not long afterwards.  Ladar Levison did a presentation about that at Inbox Love last year.  Server to Server security protects most email these days.

The problem (as everyone is just about to tell you) is that every single server - even FastMail's servers where the email is all stored on encrypted partitions - is vulnerable to lawful interception by the governments of the countries where they are based.  In our case we publish a detailed description of the specific laws that we are bound by, and the organisations (there aren't many) who are entitled to request data - what sorts of data they can request - and what legal hurdles they have to go through to request that data.

But if you commit a crime, or are suspected of doing so with sufficient evidence to get a warrant for your data - and that action is a crime both in Australia and the jurisdiction where it's alleged to have been committed - and it's important enough that the law enforcement officers at both ends are willing to jump through the hoops of a mutual assistance request (I believe they're quite substantial - we get many requests that we never hear of again after we point the requesting officer in the direction of the legal process they have to follow for us to be allowed to give them data) - then we will hand over data.  Every provider will.  Every ISP or hosting business providing the servers.

This is the basic rule of law process that occurs in every western country - if something is within the jurisdiction of a court, and that law grants the court access to a type of data, then a court order can be obtained, and is backed by force.  It's how our society operates - and the internet is a series of physical tubes at some point that are in physical locations inside legal jurisdictions.


What a full end-to-end system gets you is:

a) only the two endpoint jurisdictions matter for security, you don't have to worry about the jurisdictions of the intermediate hosts.
b) if you own the endpoint entirely yourself, there are more protections against data requests (not to mention advance warning that the data has been requested) which aren't always available when a third party is holding "your" data.
c) safety against hackers.  If Ashley Madison^W^W#include <recent_hack_victim> was your ISP, then your email might be more widely searchable than you anticipated when you signed up.  Only the endpoints are hack vulnerable.

The downside are less robustness (lose your key, lose all your email - doesn't matter how well backed up it is), less searchability, less capability to view messages on multiple devices, usability (need to keep the key secure while at the same time making it not TOO painful to read or write messages during your day-to-day emailing work)



On Tue, Sep 1, 2015, at 20:00, Mihovil Stanić wrote:
> Sorry for maybe stupid question, since I'm in no way security expert or 
> even coder .
> But wouldn't something like HTTPS (or VPN tunnel) for mail server to 
> mail server solve most of problems with email encrpytion?
> Data is esentially unencrypted travelling over encrypted channel. It 
> would be stored unencrypted so seach and handling wouldn't be problem.
> Keeping it safe on server and local computers would be next challenge, 
> but hey, at least it wouldn't be intercepted on fly.
> 01.09.2015 u 05:38, Bron Gondwana je napisao/la:
> > This one I whole-heartedly support.  Actual end-to-end encryption in which
> > the intermediate servers are just dumb transport is still the gold standard
> > for actual security (with the tradeoffs you mention of key management and
> > multiple-client coordination)
> >
> > Certainly promoting Enigmail more is a no-brainer.  It already exists, and
> > it's already popular.  Making it easier for people to set up and use is
> > the lowest hanging fruit of all.
> >
> > Bron.
> >
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  Bron Gondwana
  brong at

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