While on the conjunction of Mozo tools and security, woeful or otherwise ... a month or so back I used Thunderbird as a foil to introduce a hypothesis (which you can call a law when I'm dead):
Predictably, most people thought I was grumbling "about Thunderbird", when in fact I was grumbling about the brain-dead insecurity known as PKI.
Unfortunately, Thunderbird has a great name, but the security thing it follows does not. The absolutely dire architecture loosely and variously known as S/MIME or x.509 identity certificates, as applied to email, provides a textbook case of how a system breaches Kerckhoffs' 6th law -- that the system should be usable -- and therefore is bypassed by the users. As this is his most important law by far (by simple economic proof, if you wish to demur) the system is insecure, and the 5 lesser Kerckhoffs do not enter into the discussion.
I also pointed out that I had two newbies up and going in 3 minutes flat with Skype - both with next to no help (over some other chat thing like ICQ). So let's call that the benchmark for a superlative security solution that meets Kerckhoffs' 6th law.
Which leads me to last night's observation - Jimbo, a moderately experienced computer person, downloaded, installed and was sending and receiving email with Thunderbird within 10 minutes. "Less probably," he says, which was welcome relief after debugging what turned out to be an Microsoft Outlook failure brought on by a re-install of Microsoft Office. About an hour, times two, wasted, but at least we got another Tbird flying in <10mins.
From which we can conclude that Thunderbird is in the ballpark, that's actually a good result, albeit with no security. We could suggest that Thunderbird would potentially meet Kerckhoffs' 6th if it could boot up in some sort of quasi-secure mode (even though it and every other mailer won't meet my hypothesis and probably never will, due to the tired and aged infrastructure of email).
So, why is this important? Well, it's important because there are some relatively simple fixes to put in that would bring an x.509 identity based mail agent closer to being in line with modern security thinking (if we can stretch the point with the late19th century).
Here they are:
The key is to be opportunistic, pun intended. By creating and adding the missing key, we bootstrap from nothing -- insecure comms -- to a security level which is good-enough-for-most-folks.
Let's step back and put this in context. The above simple crypto mechanism is better than the alternate as it encrypts when it can. The alternate is nothing, recall. Yet, some might say that it is worse than the PKI alternate, to which I say: comparing real world user comms -- email in flight -- to some paper ideal is an irrelevant comparison.
Keep in mind that the alternate is no crypto email, due to the immutable K6. If however you are one of those unfortunate souls locked in the world of PKI, and/or to die in the attempt, this method comes with an added bonus:
I don't want to stress the last point, above. Perhaps that's because I audit a CA in my spare time (can you say conflict of interest?), or perhaps because I have a fairly pessimistic view of the ability of the players to deliver something the market wants. Or perhaps I don't want to encourage software suppliers to do yet more secret deals with yet more opaque partners which users can't control or even have reasonable security expectations about? Who knows...
But, notwithstanding all the above, points 1 thru 5 will approximately deliver a startup that gets a Thunderbird client into something like secure comms some of the time. And once something like that is done, there are plenty of ways to *improve* that to get more crypto, more of the time, more securely.
I wonder if it could be done with a plugin?Posted by iang at September 7, 2006 05:45 PM | TrackBack