EFF’s STARTTLS Everywhere Project

As a sort of sequel to its highly successful HTTPS Everywhere campaign, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has initiated a STARTTLS Everywhere project to improve email security.

Unfortunately, this is likely to prove a bit more challenging than HTTPS Everywhere because of issues with STARTTLS,

Although many mailservers enable STARTTLS, most still do not validate certificates. Without certificate validation, an active attacker on the network can read and even modify emails sent through your supposedly “secure” connection. Since it’s not common practice to validate certificates, there’s often little incentive to present valid certificates in the first place. A brief experiment on Censys shows that about half of the mailservers that support STARTTLS use self-signed certificates.

. . .

When two mailservers support STARTTLS, their insecure connection is opportunistically upgraded to a secure one. In order to make that upgrade, the two mailservers ask each other if they support STARTTLS. Since this initial negotiation is unencrypted, network attackers can alter these messages to make it seem like neither server supports STARTTLS, causing any emails to be sent unencrypted. ISPs in the U.S. and abroad have been caught doing exactly this, and in 2014, several researchers found that encryption on outbound email from several countries were being regularly stripped.

But you have to start somewhere, and the EFF should be commended for going beyond simply issuing policy prescriptions and recommendations, and doing a lot of the heavy lifting to improve end user security.