Monthly Archives: May 2014

Email Metadata Privacy – Should You Care or Not

When we first heard of Edward Snowden in June 2013, we heard of the collection of metadata at Verizon. It took us a while to figure out if that was troubling.
Now we know that it is. Who calls whom at what time and how often reveals many things that we may want to keep private. How often I call my doctor, priest, psychiatrist, or astrological hotline is my business and none of yours.

The same goes for Email where people now are asking for privacy solutions, as they have understood how personal and private this information is and that they can’t trust the promises of technology and service providers. People naturally have turned to PGP for email encryption as the widely accepted standard for protecting their private messages.

But, guess what, PGP only encrypts the body of your message. Subject line, sender, recipient, time, IP address, and a host of other technical details are transmitted in the clear.

Trouble is that they have to be in order to make their way to the intended recipient across public networks. Much like a letter that you post will have a recipient address and a return address and a post office stamp that your postman and your neighbor can inspect. So while the content of your letter will be private while sender and recipient will not be anonymous.

So the big question becomes if this is a problem or not. Three things to consider:

It’s a problem depending on what you’re afraid of. Me, I’m afraid of somebody breaking into my Gmail account and posting 10-year old messages on the web for everybody to see. Every now and then I stumble across some old message and am embarrassed by what I wrote. Nothing more, nothing less. Thankfully not in the league of Colin Powell and Corina Cretu, but still. Wouldn’t want to see the old stuff in public. And this is just embarrassment in retrospect. I don’t even know what might be embarrassing or problematic in the future. Think of being denied entry into some country where you criticized an emerging party in an email ten years ago. And now that party is in power and they have read that email. That’s the kind of stuff that worries me. Turns out that PGP encryption of my message text takes care of this very nicely. So I’ll have some of that PGP encryption and pronto.

Of course I’m interested in exposing even less for embarrassment or misuse. So an email provider that is very specific on metadata retention is certainly interesting. They really have no need to keep a complete record of who I communicated with and about what once the messages have been delivered. So transparency about data retention, ideally audited by independent and trustworthy experts, and completely open communication on attempted breakins and governmental requests for data access would absolutely win my business. Full disclosure: We’re working on that…

Since this is such a big issue we can reasonably expect for the technology industry to address the issue of encrypting metadata for email. The so-called Darkmail alliance has gotten quite a bit of press last year and may come up with an exciting technology change. We haven’t heard much from them recently so it’s a bit hard to say more. And of course it will be useful only if it turns out to be a genuine standard adopted by multiple technology and service providers.

In the meantime it’s probably best to apply the old 80/20 rule. If I can encrypt 80 percent of my email content with 20 percent of the effort then that’s good enough for me. That is why PGP wins for the foreseeable future.

Domiciling Data and Servers: Be Careful What You Wish For

A lot of talk these days about “Digital Sovereignty”. Whereby well-meaning people like to think that they can keep control of their data by ensuring that the data are kept in a certain legal or geographical area and somehow never leave.

But that is probably fundamentally flawed. Among other things one should consider:

  • Internet pipes do not stop at geographical boundaries. Stuff flows everywhere and you cannot stop it. Which is what makes the Internet so useful and so cheap. Recent discussions in Switzerland for constructing a multi-billion dollar “special” Internet for the military (and banks no less) seem highly problematic.
  • The stuff that runs the Internet probably does not come from your country. For years we have been told to avoid Chinese telecoms equipment. And now we find Cisco and others complaining that their equipment is tampered with systematically. 

For any threat I might want to avoid by domiciling data in my geography, I can imagine a straightforward attack that keeps that threat very much alive even if we close the pipes at the borders. The bribed or disgruntled data center or telco employee always has been and always will be attack vector #1. 

Much better to think about proper, meaning end-to-end, encryption applied within my personal jurisdiction. If only I have the keys then I can use public servers and services across the globe and I get all the benefits and none of the risks.

If you’re still skeptical take a look at this recent announcement about Visa and Mastercard moving their servers into Russia. Digital sovereignty indeed!


Q1 Reading List

In a nutshell: Too much James Bond thanks to the reissued box sets with all the wonderful actors reading the sometimes less than wonderful works of Ian Fleming. And a major discovery, Karl-Ove Knausgard. Who you may or may not like, no guarantees.

Ian Fleming: From Russia, with Love. Not bad. About average.
Karl Ove Knausgård: Sterben. Takes some getting into but then you can’t put it away. Really strong stuff. 
Ian Fleming: Dr. No. Pretty good. Above average.
Lili Gruber: Ereditá. Really interesting.
Blair Tindall: Mozart in the Jungle. Plenty interesting but could have been so much more. 
Ian Fleming: Goldfinger. A pleasant surprise. Way above average.
Clayton M. Christensen: How Will You Measure Your Life? Not bad not great not mandatory.
Ben Horowitz: The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Now this is spot-on. And well written. 
David Walsh: Seven Deadly Sins. This never gets boring. What drama.
Antonio Tabucchi: Die Zeit altert schnell. Eine schöne Entdeckung. Davon sollte man noch mehr lesen.
Jim Bouton: Ball Four. Of course very interesting. But soooo long.
Karl Ove Knausgård: Lieben. Addictive. It’s the reward you get for being brave enough to make it through the first volume. 
Ian Fleming: The Man with the Golden Gun. Crap. 
Julia Angwin: Dragnet Nation. Better than expected. Well worth it.
William: Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale. Weird and flawed. Subpar.
Ian Fleming: You Only Live Twice. Slightly above average. And now enough with these books. 
Karl Ove Knausgård: Spielen. More of the same. Which is good. Keep it coming. If only the translators were a little faster.