Security flaws found in Apple Mail can reveal encrypted email as plaintext

Computer encryption

If you've been using PGP or S/MIME to securely send and receive sensitive emails, you'll want to stop using them right away, as a group of European researchers have found vulnerabilities in both standards.

Sebastian Schinzel, lead of the IT security lab at the Münster University of Applied Sciences, said the paper would be published ahead of a scheduled date later this week after the embargo was broken. The reason is that a team of European researchers has found critical flaws in the encryption standards and now there are no fixes available. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) advises to immediately disable all email tools that automatically decrypt PGP.

An EFF advisory says "these vulnerabilities pose an immediate risk to those using these tools for email communication, including the potential exposure of the contents of past messages".

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According to a tweet from Schinzel, the vulnerabilities "might reveal the plaintext of encrypted emails, including encrypted emails sent in the past". It also name dEnigmail for Thunderbird, GPGTools for Apple Mail and Gpg4win for Outlook as worthy of disablement, and offers instructions on how to do so.

PGP or Pretty Good Privacy was developed in 1991 by Phil Zimmermann. As a more extreme measure, you could remove the PGP keys from the mail client entirely, preventing the app from any decrypting encoded strings. The importance of email encryption went mainstream after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the US government's electronic surveillance in 2013. "This vulnerability might be used to decrypt the contents of encrypted emails sent in the past".

Germany's Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) admitted that the findings constituted "a serious security breach". On the other hand, S/MIME is used mainly in enterprise infrastructure.

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It added, however, that it considered the encryption standards themselves to be safe if correctly implemented and configured.

It advised users to disable the use of active content, such as HTML code and the loading of external content, and to secure their email servers against external access.

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