Endpoint

10/24/2016
11:00 AM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail vvv
100%
0%

Deleting Emails Original Sin: An Historical Perspective

Can DMARC do for email security what SSL certificates did for e-commerce?

For consumers and businesses alike, opening email has long been an exercise in trust. Do you know that the person or company whose name appears in the ‘From’ field really sent that message? Are you sure? As the CEO of an email authentication company, those are the questions that keep me (and my clients) up at night. 

But it wasn’t always that way. For most of the past 40 years, we just took it on faith that the sender’s name and email address of the sender in our inbox are legitimate. That’s because when the wizards who first created the Internet initially set up email’s basic protocols, they balanced costs in computing power, implementation, and ease of use versus the risk of fraud. At the time, it was nearly inconceivable that 80 percent of all email would be malware, phish or spam. So they didn’t include any provisions for authenticating the sender of an email.

That’s led to a rash of phishing attacks aimed at getting employees or customers to click on malicious links, send W-2s and employee data to scammers, or wire funds into criminals’ accounts. Just ask John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, whose emails were allegedly compromised by Russian hackers, or the unsuspecting employees at Snapchat who gave away highly sensitive payroll data to scammers, or Medstar Health in Washington DC, where someone, in all likelihood, received an email asking them to click on what seemed to be an innocuous link or PDF attachment, but was actually a virus that brought the entire system to its knees.

These  costly and dangerous attacks all reveal the deep vulnerabilities facing our national email and internet infrastructure today. The problem is pervasive — the FBI reports that just one scam, the BEC (Business to Email Compromise) is up 1,300% since last year, costing U.S. companies more than $3 billion dollars in losses.

DMARC: The Email Authentication Gold Standard
The good news is the situation is beginning to change for the better, thanks to a movement toward email authentication led by the major email service providers, including Google, Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft. These entities have recently converged around a set of open email authentication standards called DMARC  (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance). It’s the keystone global standard, integrating two older authentication standards and aligning them in a way that makes it possible to authenticate the identity of an email sender easily, reliably and quickly — essentially creating a white list of acceptable senders of email, and blocking unauthorized senders from delivery. 

In a world where the rise of third-party cloud services are increasingly common for enterprises, this is especially essential. Companies have far less visibility and control over the email sent on their behalf than in years past, creating concerns about compliance, best practices, and "shadow IT." Luckily, word is catching on about DMARC, and increasingly, there are good free tools that can quickly tell you if your domains and external services are authenticating properly.

Lessons from the Past: Verisign and SSL
But if this rising concern of cyber safety all sounds a bit familiar, it should. In the late 1990s, ecommerce companies faced a similar “original sin” with the Internet’s basic lack of encryption. Users were increasingly reluctant to use their credit cards online since they were being stolen in massive numbers. A coalition of banks, credit card companies and retailers, worried the nascent e-commerce surge would be hurt, decided to act. Credit card transactions over unencrypted, plain-text Web connections had to stop. But getting encrypted SSL connections to work meant getting a digital certificate and learning how to configure it properly, which was a daunting prospect for many retail companies in the 1990s.

VeriSign stepped into this gap with an easy-to-use digital certificate authority and an array of related services. This allowed banks and Visa to enforce the use of Secure Socket Layer certificates (SSL certs). What happened next is now well-known: Thanks to SSL, the e-commerce revolution was able to blossom, boosting the economy and leading to myriad new industries.

With DMARC wiping clean email’s original sin, we are about to see a similar transformation of email-based communications and commerce. Phishing attacks that spoof domain names will be stopped cold, because no unauthorized parties will be able to send fraudulent emails that look like they come from someone else. Government agencies and companies will gain better control of their messaging systems, and will be able to designate which partners and vendors are allowed to send email on their behalf. And their IT teams will get detailed reports on who is actually sending email, and who is attempting to send spoofed messages, masquerading as their company.

Now it’s up to government and industry to act quickly to adopt these standards. The sooner we are able to regain trust in email, the sooner all of us — citizens, consumers, and employees alike — will again enjoy the benefits of this amazing invention. And the sooner we can all get some sleep when it comes to email concerns. 

Related Content:

Alexander García-Tobar is CEO and co-founder of ValiMail, a leading provider of email authentication services located in San Francisco, CA. Alexander has deep roots in the email authentication and cybersecurity space, as a global executive and advisor at Agari, ... View Full Bio
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Joe Stanganelli
50%
50%
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
10/26/2016 | 9:14:33 AM
Private-communication authentication
The thing about certificates though is that they're about (1) one party authenticating they are who they say they are, and (2) the same party authenticating that the connection is secure.

Email doesn't work that way...and from time to time you're going to get unfamiliar senders (and, therefore, non-whitelisted senders) who are sending legitimate email.

Of course, all of these emails could be "authenticated," but then what if someone who has authentication via a certificate authority then decides to become a bad actor?

The easy rebuttal to this is that, "Well, that's okay, because we'll have their identity -- and can thereby revoke their authentication."

But then that gets us down the data-privacy rabbit hole.

It's one thing for online retailers and other sellers / companies to authenticate themselves publicly.  It's another thing to ask people to authenticate themselves for private communication.

Or what am I missing here?
AmbarishM389
50%
50%
AmbarishM389,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/24/2016 | 8:19:36 PM
Email authentication
Thank you for the post. As a user, would be great to know that emails that I receive are coming from authentic sources. Hope DMARC or something equivalent can be sufficiently prevelant that non-DMARC mails can directly go to my spam folder!

 
WebAuthn, FIDO2 Infuse Browsers, Platforms with Strong Authentication
John Fontana, Standards & Identity Analyst, Yubico,  9/19/2018
NSS Labs Files Antitrust Suit Against Symantec, CrowdStrike, ESET, AMTSO
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  9/19/2018
Turn the NIST Cybersecurity Framework into Reality: 5 Steps
Mukul Kumar & Anupam Sahai, CISO & VP of Cyber Practice and VP Product Management, Cavirin Systems,  9/20/2018
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win a Starbucks Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: Are you sure this is how we get our data into the cloud?
Current Issue
Flash Poll
The Risk Management Struggle
The Risk Management Struggle
The majority of organizations are struggling to implement a risk-based approach to security even though risk reduction has become the primary metric for measuring the effectiveness of enterprise security strategies. Read the report and get more details today!
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2018-14633
PUBLISHED: 2018-09-25
A security flaw was found in the chap_server_compute_md5() function in the ISCSI target code in the Linux kernel in a way an authentication request from an ISCSI initiator is processed. An unauthenticated remote attacker can cause a stack buffer overflow and smash up to 17 bytes of the stack. The at...
CVE-2018-14647
PUBLISHED: 2018-09-25
Python's elementtree C accelerator failed to initialise Expat's hash salt during initialization. This could make it easy to conduct denial of service attacks against Expat by contructing an XML document that would cause pathological hash collisions in Expat's internal data structures, consuming larg...
CVE-2018-10502
PUBLISHED: 2018-09-24
This vulnerability allows local attackers to escalate privileges on vulnerable installations of Samsung Galaxy Apps Fixed in version 4.2.18.2. An attacker must first obtain the ability to execute low-privileged code on the target system in order to exploit this vulnerability. The specific flaw exist...
CVE-2018-11614
PUBLISHED: 2018-09-24
This vulnerability allows remote attackers to escalate privileges on vulnerable installations of Samsung Members Fixed in version 2.4.25. An attacker must first obtain the ability to execute low-privileged code on the target system in order to exploit this vulnerability. The specific flaw exists wit...
CVE-2018-14318
PUBLISHED: 2018-09-24
This vulnerability allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code on vulnerable installations of Samsung Galaxy S8 G950FXXU1AQL5. User interaction is required to exploit this vulnerability in that the target must have their cellular radios enabled. The specific flaw exists within the handling of ...