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Working with Email Safely and Securely : Maintaining Your Privacy While Reading Email & Setting Up an Email Account with a Digital ID

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12/7/2011 9:02:41 AM

Maintaining Your Privacy While Reading Email

You wouldn’t think that the simple act of reading an email message would have privacy implications, but you’d be surprised. There are actually two scenarios that compromise your privacy: read receipts and web bugs.

Blocking Read Receipts

A read receipt is an email notification that tells the sender that you’ve opened the message that was sent to you. If the sender requests a read receipt and you either select the message (so that the message text appears in the preview pane) or double-click the message to open it, Outlook Express displays the dialog box shown in Figure 1. Click Yes to send the receipt, or click No to skip it.

Figure 1. You see this dialog box when you open a message for which the sender has requested a read receipt.


Many people like asking for read receipts because they offer proof of delivery. It has been my experience, however, that getting a read receipt back starts a kind of internal clock that the sender uses to measure how long it takes you to respond after reading the message. Because of this annoyance, and because I feel it’s nobody’s business to know when I read a message, I always click No when asked to send a read receipt. (Spammers, too, sometimes request read receipts as a way of validating email addresses.) In fact, you can go one better and tell Outlook Express to never send a read receipt:

1.
Select Tools, Options to display the Options dialog box.

2.
Display the Receipts tab.

3.
In the Returning Read Receipts group, activate the Never Send a Read Receipt option.

4.
Click OK.

Squashing Web Bugs

A web bug is an image that resides on a remote server and that is added to an HTML-formatted email message by referencing a URL on the remote server. When you open the message, Outlook Express uses the URL to download the image for display within the message. That sounds harmless enough, but if the message is junk email, it’s likely that the URL will also contain either your email address or a code that points to your email address. When the remote server gets a request for this URL, it knows not only that you’ve opened the message, but also that your email address is legitimate.

You have three ways to combat web bugs:

  • Don’t open a message that you suspect to be spam, and don’t preview the message in the Outlook Express preview pane. In fact, before you can delete the message, you’ll need to turn off the preview pane temporarily.

  • Install the Internet Explorer 6 Service Pack 1 or the Windows XP Service Pack 2 (or a later service pack, if one is available by the time you read this). This service pack also updates Outlook Express. In particular, it gives you an easy way to thwart web bugs (although it also thwarts other message formatting, as well). In Outlook Express, select Tools, Options, choose the Read tab, and then activate the Read All Messages in Plain Text check box. This prevents Outlook Express from downloading any web bugs because it displays all messages in plain text.

  • Install the Windows XP Service Pack 2 (or a later service pack, if one is available). This update includes an option that is specifically designed to squash web bugs. In Outlook Express, select Tools, Options, choose the Security tab, and then activate the Block Images and Other External Content in HTML E-mail check box. This prevents Outlook Express from downloading web bugs and any other items that would otherwise come from some remote server.


Sending and Receiving Secure Email

When you connect to a website, your browser sets up a direct connection—called a channel—between your machine and the web server. Because the channel is a direct link, it’s relatively easy to implement security because all you have to do is secure the channel.

However, email security is entirely different and much more difficult to set up. The problem is that email messages don’t have a direct link to a Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) server. Instead, they must usually hop from server to server until the final destination is reached. Combine this with the open and well-documented email standards used on the Internet, and you end up with three email security issues:

  • The privacy issue— Because messages often pass through other systems and can even end up on a remote system’s hard disk, it isn’t that hard for someone with the requisite know-how and access to the remote system to read a message.

  • The tampering issue— Because a user can read a message passing through a remote server, it comes as no surprise that he can also change the message text.

  • The authenticity issue— With the Internet email standards an open book, it isn’t difficult for a savvy user to forge or spoof an email address.

To solve these issues, the Internet’s gurus came up with the idea of encryption. When you encrypt a message, a complex mathematical formula scrambles the message content to make it unreadable. In particular, a key value is incorporated into the encryption formula. To unscramble the message, the recipient feeds the key into the decryption formula.

This single-key encryption works, but its major drawback is that the sender and the recipient must both have the same key. Public-key encryption overcomes that limitation by using two related keys: a public key and a private key. The public key is available to everyone, either by sending it to them directly or by offering it in an online key database. The private key is secret and is stored on the user’s computer.

Here’s how public-key cryptography solves the issues discussed earlier:

  • Solving the privacy issue— When you send a message, you obtain the recipient’s public key and use it to encrypt the message. The encrypted message can now only be decrypted using the recipient’s private key, thus assuring privacy.

  • Solving the tampering issue— An encrypted message can still be tampered with, but only randomly because the content of the message can’t be seen. This thwarts the most important skill used by tamperers: making the tampered message look legitimate.

  • Solving the authenticity issue— When you send a message, you use your private key to digitally sign the message. The recipient can then use your public key to examine the digital signature to ensure the message came from you.

If there’s a problem with public-key encryption, it is that the recipient of a message must obtain the sender’s public key from an online database. (The sender can’t just send the public key because the recipient would have no way to prove that the key came from the sender.) Therefore, to make all this more convenient, a digital ID is used. This is a digital certificate that states the sender’s public key has been authenticated by a trusted certifying authority. The sender can then include his or her public key in his or her outgoing messages.

Setting Up an Email Account with a Digital ID

To send secure messages using Outlook Express, you first have to obtain a digital ID. Here are the steps to follow:

1.
In Outlook Express, select Tools, Options and then display the Security tab.

2.
Click Get Digital ID. Internet Explorer loads and takes you to the Outlook Express digital ID page on the Web.

3.
Click a link to the certifying authority (such as VeriSign) you want to use.

4.
Follow the authority’s instructions for obtaining a digital ID. (Note that digital IDs are not free; they typically cost about $15 U.S. per year.)

With your digital ID installed, the next step is to assign it to an email account:

1.
In Outlook Express, select Tools, Accounts to open the Internet Accounts dialog box.

2.
Use the Mail tab to select the account you want to work with and then click Properties. The account’s property sheet appears.

3.
Display the Security tab.

4.
In the Signing Certificate group, click Select. Outlook Express displays the Select Default Account Digital ID dialog box.

5.
Make sure that the certificate you installed is selected and then click OK. Your name appears in the Security tab’s first Certificate box.

6.
Click OK to return to the Internet Accounts dialog box.

7.
Click Close.

Tip

To make a backup copy of your digital ID, open Internet Explorer and select Tools, Internet Options. Display the Content tab and click Certificates to see a list of your installed certificates (be sure to use the Personal tab). Click your digital ID and then click Export.

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