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In the wake of 2013′s Summer of Surveillance, demand for privacy-respecting email services has skyrocketed. Email is a dinosaur technology though, designed long before the word privacy was part of the internet’s lexicon. Email as we know it today was never intended to obscure metadata or require end-to-end encryption. Message encryption was a rough afterthought and peer-to-peer connections aren’t even possible with conventional email protocols.
Nevertheless, a handful of new services have given rise to what we could call Email 2.0. Or if you prefer, you could call it what email should have been 20 years ago. Open source PGP encryption and key management is being baked into conventional webmail, easily usable by the non-dedicated. Service providers are forcing browsers into HTTPS connections with forward secrecy and requiring encryption between other mail servers. IP addresses in mail headers are being left behind as well.
As we begin 2015, reasonable privacy and security are possible with email and while easier than ever, we’re virtually at the limits of expansion. New innovations are blending email, instant messaging and social networks with decentralized protocols and always-on encryption so as to be usable by anyone.
These advancements are sitting out toward the horizon though; accessible, but still maturing. Adoption and community support will be the biggest hurdles faced by projects like Bitmessage, Pond and Tent, and personal platforms like Enigmabox. Of course there are more than just these.
In the mean time, here is a list of three email providers whose free services are a practical starting point. There are reputable paid options as well, while anyone would welcome your donation. Regardless of your choice, know that no service or technology can address the root problem of mass surveillance. They are only forms of sidestepping it. Autistici/Inventati
A/I is a small organization in Italy which was started and is managed by volunteers. In addition to email, an A/I account includes XMPP and VPN access and you can also ask for web hosting. You get a choice of about 25 different domains, Roundcube is used for the webmail interface and you can temporarily suspend your account if you think you won’t use it for more than 6 months Inbox.com.
A/I does not store server logs and their SMTP headers also filter out mail client user agents. A/I uses their own self- signed TLS certificate and while not necessary for email, it must be installed on your computer to use their XMPP or VPN services.
You must request an A/I account and because you’ll receive a response with a temporary password, you need to provide an email address that won’t quickly expire. A/I account passwords are limited to 60 characters and no special characters. A password can be recovered from a link on the login page and to close an A/I account, you must contact them.
GhostMail provides an end-to-end encrypted email, chat and file storage service which boasts zero-knowledge architecture and overall priority of user privacy. GhostCom, the company which formed behind GhostMail, is funded by it’s (“wealthy” says the FAQ) owners and paid services will be offered shortly.
GhostMail uses a proprietary backend and open source frontend to encrypt messages and uploaded files with AES- 256 and RSA 2048 for key exchanges. Message body, attachments and metadata are encrypted between GhostMail accounts and an overview of their crypto processes can be found here. While GhostMail can not yet receive emails from non-GM accounts (this will change shortly), unencrypted mail can be sent to them. MailChimp’s Mandrill is used for this, as well as account email notifications, but GhostMail is working on their own system to take Mandrill’s place in their mail stack.
The mail service gives you HTML composing, carbon copy and blind carbon copy sending. Messages to other GhostMail addresses can be set for self-destruction with a range of 1 hour to 7 days. You can view sent messages, save drafts and mark messages with Starred or Business tags, but there is no option to view or compose messages in plain text (non-HTML). No trash either, so messages are deleted immediately. GhostBox, the file storage end of GhostMail, shares storage space with GhostMail messages.
In an account’s Settings you can change time zone and your password, disable auto-add for contacts, set up two- factor authentication for Android and iOS using Google Authenticator, and add an additional email account to be notified when you receive messages to your GhostMail account. You can also add an HTML signature to messages. GhostCom provides a warrant canary and transparency report. To close an account, follow the instructions on their help page.
Unique to GhostMail is their High Frequency Erasing process (see Data Deleting in the link). When you delete a message or contact, or log out of your account, that hard drive and memory space which was previously used is overwritten “multiple times” on their servers to ensure no remnants survive the session. GhostMail underwent a security audit in February 2015 by a Danish IT security company and the result was a positive review. Messages contain a GhostMail tag line at the bottom with a link to their website. In mail headers to non-GhostMail addresses will be an X-Mandrill-User ID. Since Mandrill is a separate mail service, GhostCom has an account with MailChimp to provide that service. The Mandrill ID is that of GhostCom’s Mandrill account. It will be the same
across all GhostMail addresses but only present when sending to outside mail domains. GhostMail is still in Beta and additional features are on the roadmap.
Mail.Ru is a popular online services provider in Russia and Eastern Europe. They’re Russia’s biggest email service and do online gaming, search, news, ecommerce…there’s a long list. Mail.Ru owns both Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki and Mail.ua, and it’s available in the languages of ex-Soviet areas, English, Romanian and Spanish.
You get a calendar, file storage and there’s the option of using a security question or phone number for password recovery. An additional email isn’t required to sign up. There are options to only allow one session, only allow signin from a single IP address and others for displaying info about the most recent session. The Mail.RU Agent, a messaging service, has its own security and privacy settings. To close an account, Mail.ru has a link but if you then try to log back in within 3 months, the account will be reactivated.
Of interest could be that Mail.Ru was one of the foreign email providers specifically shown in the United States NSA’s XKeyscore training slides. It’s also mentioned again in a presentation from a 2012 conference which mentions the “moderate” risk Mail.ru poses to SIGDEV operations.