Emailing information, secure and convenient

emailing information

emailing information

GnuPG is the OpenPGP solution for securing financial and other information in an online world prone to compromised email accounts.

I like email and find it immensely useful. I suppose that reveals my age! However, I do believe that email is an excellent medium for receiving personalised information. I expect it to be reliable and, hence, someone else’s information being sent to you or me is just unacceptable.

You may have also received emails asking you to contact [email protected] in case the email is not meant for you. At times if you inform them, you may get a polite automated response and, often, there is silence as if your email has gone to the spam folder.


Verifying emails

It seems very strange to receive emails related to financial data like investments and loans, which are meant for someone else. Given the significance of emails, verifying an email before activating it should be the default condition. Financial institutions may use their ‘one time password’ infrastructure to do so. It is also easy to find examples of open source code to verify email before activation for many programming languages. There is just no reason not to guard against the customer making a mistake or a data entry error.

Acknowledgments are a must

Most of the readers of this magazine are probably aware that Gmail regards [email protected] as the same as [email protected]. It seems likely that some organisations treat them as different email IDs. That was my interpretation when my emails stopped after I complained about receiving someone else’s statements!
I am hoping that I will stop receiving the wrong statements now that I sent the complaint using the synonymous email ID. However, I will know about this only after a month as there hasn’t been a single acknowledgement email.
Would you like to deal with such an organisation if you could avoid it? It seems a pity since this is a commonly used action and it is easy to find sample code for sending an email acknowledgement in various languages.

Encryption-–protection from deliberate attack

You will find that most of the financial institutions are using passwords based on your PAN, name, address or account number. None of these are particularly confidential. This protection will guard against accidental exposure, e.g., the statements going to the wrong email ID. However, if your accounts were compromised, these documents will not be safe. Even brute force attacks on documents with such passwords are not difficult.

If the financial institutions were serious about security concerns, they should have offered you the option of using GPG private/public key encryption. You would upload your public key to their site or, better still, it could be a part of the KYC (know your customer) infrastructure. Each document they send you would be encrypted by your public key. Unless you lost your private key, the chances of your documents being compromised even if your email account was compromised, would be remote.

It is a nuisance to keep track of which type of password is used by which organisation, every time you receive a document. And if I want to keep a decrypted version of the PDF document on my desktop, the easiest way for me is to print the password protected PDF document to a PDF file!
On the other hand, it is not difficult to use GPG encryption on KDE and GNOME desktops now. You can experiment with them. Here is a sample KDE session.

Run kgpg.
Create the configuration file and a new key pair.
Remember the pass phrase you use; it is easy, e.g., “Even
I can remember my pass-phrase.”
In kgpg configuration, disable Ascii Armoured Encryption
as the default (for convenience only).
Export the public key and send it to a friend.
Receive the friend’s public key and import it in kgpg, and
sign it to trust it.In Dolphin file manager, right click on the file you wish to
send. Use the Encrypt action to encrypt it using the public
key of your friend.
A new file with gpg extension will be created. If you try to
decrypt it, it will fail.
Send this file to your friend and ask him to send you an
encrypted file.
Receive a mail with an encrypted file and download it.
Click on it in the Dolphin file browser and it will be
decrypted. You will need to specify your pass phrase for
the key you had created.

Try using it with more than one friend and you will notice one major difference. No matter how many people send you encrypted files, you need to remember only one pass phrase, which you alone have created. It is a tremendous convenience at a nominal effort. Also, you can encrypt all types of files and not just PDF documents.

The original hope for a password-less Internet had been to issue digital certificates. However, issuing and managing them at the individual level is far too complex and expensive. Hence, the client-side authentication using certificates never took off. It may be of interest to users of Ubuntu that most of Mark Shuttleworth’s wealth came from Thawte Consulting, which was primarily involved in digital certificates.

From a server’s security perspective, users uploading their own public key is just as good as creating their own password. Now, if only there was a way to convince financial organisations to start offering GPG encryption as an option.

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The author works as a consultant. Prior to consulting, Anil was a professor at Padre Conceicao College of Engineering (PCCE) in Goa, managed IT and imaging solutions for Phil Corporation Limited (Goa), supported domestic customers for Tata Burroughs/TIL, and was a researcher with IIT-K and the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism (Mumbai).


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