Many government agencies, including the US military, are leaving the emails of soldiers and government employees potentially in danger of being intercepted by spies and hackers by failing to implement a commonly used encryption technology.
In the wake of the revelations of mass surveillance brought forth by Edward Snowden, the movement to promote the use of encryption technology across the internet has been seemingly unstoppable. Even the White House jumped on the "encrypt all the things" bandwagon this year, asking all government websites to use HTTPS web encryption to improve the security and privacy of their users.
But as encryption spreads to government sites, it hasn't reached government emails yet. Most of the military as well as the intelligence community do not use encryption to protect emails travelling across the internet.
"This is a pervasive problem in the government," Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who's been pushing for the adoption of more encryption for years, told Motherboard. "And in many ways it affects the parts on the government that should be more focused on security—they're doing it worse."
"The military should not be sending any email that isn't encrypted, period."
In fact, according to an online testing tool, among the military only the Air Force encrypts emails in transit using a technology called STARTTLS, which has existed since 2002. Other branches of the Pentagon, including the Army, the Navy, the Defense Security Service, and DARPA, don't use it. Even the standard military email provider mail.mil, doesn't support STARTTLS.
In 1995, Bruce Schneier described email as nothing more than "a postcard that anyone can read along the way." That's been true for many years, and it is still true depending on your email provider. But that's started to change in the last couple of years, with the rise of STARTTLS.
STARTTLS is a protocol that encrypts emails travelling from email server to email server. When your email provider doesn't support STARTTLS, your email might be encrypted going from your computer to your provider, but it will then travel across the internet in the clear (unless you used end-to-end encryption.)
When your email provider, and the email provider of the person you're sending the email to, both support STARTTLS, then the email is protected as it travels across.
Tech companies like Google (whose Gmail implemented STARTTLS since its launch in 2004), as well as Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter, and Facebook, who all implemented STARTTLS in 2014, have been pushing for wider adoption of the technology, since it takes two to tango. And outside of the government, they've been succeeding. Facebook, for example, reported that 95 percent of the emails it sends to users are encrypted with STARTTLS. Google says that 81 percent of messages sent by Gmail users get encrypted.
But inside the government, the story is different.
In a statement emailed to Motherboard, a spokesperson for the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the Pentagon's branch that oversees email and other technologies, said the DISA's DOD Enterprise Email (DEE) does not support STARTTLS.
"STARTTLS is an extension for the Post Office Protocol 3 and Internet Message Access protocols, which rely on username and password for system access," the spokesperson wrote. "To remain compliant with DOD PKI policy, DEE does not support the use of username and password to grant access, and does not leverage either protocol."
The spokesperson did not respond to several follow-ups, asking to clarify the statement. Michael Adams, an information security expert who served more than two decades in the US Special Operations Command, said that DISA's explanation is "an unacceptable and technically inept answer," and criticized the Pentagon for not taking security seriously and implementing STARTTLS.
"I can't think of a single technical reason why they wouldn't use it," he told Motherboard in a phone interview. "It's absurd."
The risk of not encrypting emails in transit is that the messages sent and received by soldiers deployed outside of the United States could be intercepted by foreign governments controlling the internet infrastructure.
Bryan Seely, a hacker and former marine, said that the military can't rely on a soldier not to get in danger using his or her .mil address. It "makes sense," he said, to say that the policy is that no one should send anything that could be sensitive over email, "but people do it anyway. "
"I can't think of a single technical reason why they wouldn't use it. It's absurd."
"The military should not be sending any email that isn't encrypted, period. Everything should get encrypted, absolutely everything," he told me on the phone. "There's no excuse."
And it's not just the military.
Even the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and the CIA don't implement STARTTLS on their email server, according to the online testing site. The NSA, on the other hand, does.
It's unclear why these agencies aren't. Spokespeople from the FBI, the DNI and the CIA all declined to comment for this story.
Implementing STARTTLS is "very cheap and easy […] it costs practically nothing,"
Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has been working on the Encrypt The Web initiative, told me.
STARTTLS is not a panacea. Internet service providers, and anyone who controls the network's backbone—as some governments do—can remove the encryption with man-in-the-middle attacks by stripping the "STARTTLS flag" used to request encryption to the server. In these cases, servers are usually programmed to proceed without encryption.
Yet Hoffman-Andrews said STARTTLS is "an important first step." For Soghoian, the ACLU technologist, it's "cybersecurity and foreign intelligence 101."
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