Users Warned of Critical Email Encryption Security Flaw

PGP Encryption Flaw Emails Plaintext

The attacker crafts a message that includes the old encrypted message.

As of now, there are not many details available on the latest vulnerability, but more information is expected to be shared by the researchers soon. The victim's email client decrypts the email and loads any external content (added by the attacker), thus exfiltrating the plaintext to the attacker. PGP and S/MIME are said to have flaws that could be exploited to get access to any incoming or outgoing emails on platforms that use either of the two encryption tools. Users are advised to stop using tools that decrypt PGP or S/MIME encrypted emails. The reason is that a team of European researchers has found critical flaws in the encryption standards and now there are no fixes available. Flaws in the way the programs handle e-mails with multiple body parts make it possible to embed invisible snippets of previously obtained encrypted text in new e-mails.

"The attacker changes an encrypted email in a particular way and sends this changed encrypted email to the victim", the EFF's spokesperson explained. The surreptitious exfiltration works against both the PGP and S/MIME standards. "If you use PGP/GPG or S/MIME for very sensitive communication, you should disable it in your email client for now".

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According to the researchers, users, for the time being, should stay away from plugins for email clients like Microsoft Outlook and Apple Mail as these services automatically encrypt and decrypt emails.

The following video shows Efail exploiting Thunderbird. At this moment there are no reliable ways to fix this vulnerability, says a Professor at münster University of applied Sciences Sebastian Sintel (Sebastian Schinzel). This is not surprising as PGP encryption has so far been considered rock solid. The expert said that the attackers using these programs can "access" not only to intercepted letters, but all are ever sent. While the researchers say each mail client vendor can come up with individual mitigations, they suggest that the underlying specification for OpenPGP and S/MIME will need to be fixed over the long-term. When done properly, the attack causes the corresponding plaintext of those snippets to be displayed on an attacker-controlled server. Werner Koch of GnuPG, a popular provider of GPG encryption, said the vulnerability was not in the encryption protocols, but rather, in the email clients used to decrypt them. Ars will have much more coverage of the efail vulnerabilities, and the researchers have more information here.

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