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In Defence of Mail

A recent LWN.net article, “The trouble with text-only email“, gives us an insight through an initially-narrow perspective into a broader problem: how the use of e-mail by organisations and its handling as it traverses the Internet can undermine the viability of the medium. And how organisations supposedly defending the Internet as a platform can easily find themselves abandoning technologies that do not sit well with their “core mission”, not to mention betraying that mission by employing dubious technological workarounds.

To summarise, the Mozilla organisation wants its community to correspond via mailing lists but, being the origin of the mails propagated to list recipients when someone communicates with one of their mailing lists, it finds itself under the threat of being blacklisted as a spammer. This might sound counterintuitive: surely everyone on such lists signed up for mails originating from Mozilla in order to be on the list.

Unfortunately, the elevation of Mozilla to being a potential spammer says more about the stack of workaround upon workaround, second- and third-guessing, and the “secret handshakes” that define the handling of e-mail today than it does about anything else. Not that factions in the Mozilla organisation have necessarily covered themselves in glory in exploring ways of dealing with their current problem.

The Elimination Problem

Let us first identify the immediate problem here. No, it is not spamming as such, but it is the existence of dubious “reputation” services who cause mail to be blocked on opaque and undemocratic grounds. I encountered one of these a few years ago when trying to send a mail to a competition and finding that such a service had decided that my mail hosting provider’s Internet address was somehow “bad”.

What can one do when placed in such a situation? Appealing to the blacklisting service will not do an individual any good. Instead, one has to ask one’s mail provider to try and fix the issue, which in my case they had actually been trying to do for some time. My mail never got through in the end. Who knows how long it took to persuade the blacklisting service to rectify what might have been a mistake?

Yes, we all know that the Internet is awash with spam. And yes, mechanisms need to be in place to deal with it. But such mechanisms need to be transparent and accountable. Without these things, all sorts of bad things can take place: censorship, harassment, and forms of economic crime spring readily to mind. It should be a general rule of thumb in society that when someone exercises power over others, such power must be controlled through transparency (so that it is not arbitrary and so that everyone knows what the rules are) and through accountability (so that decisions can be explained and judged to have been properly taken and acted upon).

We actually need better ways of eliminating spam and other misuse of common communications mechanisms. But for now we should at least insist that whatever flawed mechanisms that exist today uphold the democratic principles described above.

The Marketing Problem

Although Mozilla may have distribution lists for marketing purposes, its problem with mailing lists is something of a different creature. The latter are intended to be collaborative and involve multiple senders of the original messages: a many-to-many communications medium. Meanwhile, the former is all about one-to-many messaging, and in this regard we stumble across the root of the spam problem.

Obviously, compulsive spammers are people who harvest mail addresses from wherever they can be found, trawling public data or buying up lists of addresses sourced during potentially unethical activities. Such spammers create a huge burden on society’s common infrastructure, but they are hardly the only ones cultivating that burden. Reputable businesses, even when following the law communicating with their own customers, often employ what can be regarded as a “clueless” use of mail as a marketing channel without any thought to the consequences.

Businesses might want to remind you of their products and encourage you to receive their mails. The next thing you know, you get messages three times a week telling you about products that are barely of interest to you. This may be a “win” for the marketing department – it is like advertising on television but cheaper because you don’t have to bid against addiction-exploiting money launderers gambling companies, debt sharks consumer credit companies or environment-trashing, cure peddlers nutritional supplement companies for “eyeballs” – but it cheapens and worsens the medium for everybody who uses it for genuine interpersonal communication and not just for viewing advertisements.

People view e-mail and mail software as a lost cause in the face of wave after wave of illegal spam and opportunistic “spammy” marketing. “Why bother with it at all?” they might ask, asserting that it is just a wastebin that one needs to empty once a week as some kind of chore, before returning to one’s favourite “social” tools (also plagued with spam and surveillance, but consistency is not exactly everybody’s strong suit).

The Authenticity Problem

Perhaps to escape problems with the overly-zealous blacklisting services, it is not unusual to get messages ostensibly from a company, being a customer of theirs, but where the message originates from some kind of marketing communications service. The use of such a service may be excusable depending on how much information is shared, what kinds of safeguards are in place, and so on. What is less excusable is the way the communication is performed.

I actually experience this with financial institutions, which should be a significant area of concern both for individuals, the industry and its regulators. First of all, the messages are not encrypted, which is what one might expect given that the sender would need some kind of public key information that I haven’t provided. But provided that the message details are not sensitive (although sometimes they have been, which is another story), we might not set our expectations so high for these communications.

However, of more substantial concern is the way that when receiving such mails, we have no way of verifying that they really originated from the company they claim to have come from. And when the mail inevitably contains links to things, we might be suspicious about where those links, even if they are URLs in plain text messages, might want to lead us.

The recipient is now confronted with a collection of Internet domain names that may or may not correspond to the identities of reputable organisations, some of which they might know as a customer, others they might be aware of, but where the recipient must also exercise the correct judgement about the relationship between the companies they do use and these other organisations with which they have no relationship. Even with a great deal of peripheral knowledge, the recipient needs to exercise caution that they do not go off to random places on the Internet and start filling out their details on the say-so of some message or other.

Indeed, I have a recent example of this. One financial institution I use wants me to take a survey conducted by a company I actually have heard of in that line of business. So far, so plausible. But then, the site being used to solicit responses is one I have no prior knowledge of: it could be a reputable technology business or it could be some kind of “honeypot”; that one of the domains mentioned contains “cloud” also does not instil confidence in the management of the data. To top it all, the mail is not cryptographically signed and so I would have to make a judgement on its authenticity based on some kind of “tea-leaf-reading” activity using the message headers or assume that the institution is likely to want to ask my opinion about something.

The Identity Problem

With the possibly-authentic financial institution survey message situation, we can perhaps put our finger on the malaise in the use of mail by companies wanting our business. I already have a heavily-regulated relationship with the company concerned. They seemingly emphasise issues like security when I present myself to their Web sites. Why can they not at least identify themselves correctly when communicating with me?

Some banks only want electronic communications to take place within their hopefully-secure Web site mechanisms, offering “secure messaging” and similar things. Others also offer such things, either two-way or maybe only customer-to-company messaging, but then spew e-mails at customers anyway, perhaps under the direction of the sales and marketing branches of the organisation.

But if they really must send mails, why can they not leverage their “secure” assets to allow me to obtain identifying information about them, so that their mails can be cryptographically signed and so that I can install a certificate and verify their authenticity? After all, if you cannot trust a bank to do these things, which other common institutions can you trust? Such things have to start somewhere, and what better place to start than in the banking industry? These people are supposed to be good at keeping things under lock and key.

The Responsibility Problem

This actually returns us to the role of Mozilla. Being a major provider of software for accessing the Internet, the organisation maintains a definitive list of trusted parties through whom the identity of Web sites can be guaranteed (to various degrees) when one visits them with a browser. Mozilla’s own sites employ certificates so that people browsing them can have their privacy upheld, so it should hardly be inconceivable for the sources of Mozilla’s mail-based communications to do something similar.

Maybe S/MIME would be the easiest technology to adopt given the similarities between its use of certificates and certificate authorities and the way such things are managed for Web sites. Certainly, there are challenges with message signing and things like mailing lists, this being a recurring project for GNU Mailman if I remember correctly (and was paying enough attention), but nothing solves a longstanding but largely underprioritised problem than a concrete need and the will to get things done. Mozilla has certainly tried to do identity management in the past, recalling initiatives like Mozilla Persona, and the organisation is surely reasonably competent in that domain.

In the referenced article, Mozilla was described as facing an awkward technical problem: their messages were perceived as being delivered indiscriminately to an audience of which large portions may not have been receiving or taking receipt of the messages. This perception of indiscriminate, spam-like activity being some kind of metric employed by blacklisting services. The proposed remedy for potential blacklisting involved the elimination of plain text e-mail from Mozilla’s repertoire and the deployment of HTML-only mail, with the latter employing links to images that would load upon the recipient opening the message. (Never mind that many mail programs prevent this.)

The rationale for this approach was that Mozilla would then know that people were getting the mail and that by pruning away those who didn’t reveal their receipt of the message, the organisation could then be more certain of not sending mail to large numbers of “inactive” recipients, thus placating the blacklisting services. Now, let us consider principle #4 of the Mozilla manifesto:

Individuals’ security and privacy on the Internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional.

Given such a principle, why then is the focus on tracking users and violating their privacy, not on deploying a proper solution and just sending properly-signed mail? Is it because the mail is supposedly not part of the Web or something?

The Proprietary Service Problem

Mozilla can be regarded as having a Web-first organisational mentality which, given its origins, should not be too surprising. Although the Netscape browser was extended to include mail facilities and thus Navigator became Communicator, and although the original Mozilla browser attempted to preserve a range of capabilities not directly related to hypertext browsing, Firefox became the organisation’s focus and peripheral products such as Thunderbird have long struggled for their place in the organisation’s portfolio.

One might think that the decision-makers at Mozilla believe that mundane things like mail should be done through a Web site as webmail and that everyone might as well use an established big provider for their webmail needs. After all, the vision of the Web as a platform in its own right, once formulated as Netscape Constellation in more innocent times, can be used to justify pushing everything onto the Web.

The problem here is that as soon as almost everyone has been herded into proprietary service “holding pens”, expecting a free mail service while having their private communications mined for potential commercial value, things like standards compliance and interoperability suffer. Big webmail providers don’t need to care about small mail providers. Too bad if the big provider blacklists the smaller one: most people won’t even notice, and why don’t the users of the smaller provider “get with it” and use what everybody else is using, anyway?

If everyone ends up almost on the same server or cluster of servers or on one of a handful of such clusters, why should the big providers bother to do anything by the book any more? They can make all sorts of claims about it being more efficient to do things their own way. And then, mail is no longer a decentralised, democratic tool any more: its users end up being trapped in a potentially exploitative environment with their access to communications at risk of being taken away at a moment’s notice, should the provider be persuaded that some kind of wrong has been committed.

The Empowerment Problem

Ideally, everyone would be able to assert their own identity and be able to verify the identity of those with whom they communicate. With this comes the challenge in empowering users to manage their own identities in a way which is resistant to “identity theft”, impersonation, and accidental loss of credentials that could have a severe impact on a person’s interactions with necessary services and thus on their life in general.

Here, we see the failure of banks and other established, trusted organisations to make this happen. One might argue that certain interests, political and commercial, do not want individuals controlling their own identity or their own use of cryptographic technologies. Even when such technologies have been deployed so that people can be regarded as having signed for something, it usually happens via a normal secured Web connection with a button on a Web form, everything happening at arm’s length. Such signatures may not even be any kind of personal signature at all: they may just be some kind of transaction surrounded by assumptions that it really was “that person” because they logged in with their credentials and there are logs to “prove” it.

Leaving the safeguarding of cryptographic information to the average Internet user seems like a scary thing to do. People’s computers are not particularly secure thanks to the general neglect of security by the technology industry, nor are they particularly usable or understandable, especially when things that must be done right – like cryptography – are concerned. It also doesn’t help that when trying to figure out best practices for key management, it almost seems like every expert has their own advice, leaving the impression of a cacophony of voices, even for people with a particular interest in the topic and an above-average comprehension of the issues.

Most individuals in society might well struggle if left to figure out a technical solution all by themselves. But institutions exist that are capable of operating infrastructure with a certain level of robustness and resilience. And those institutions seem quite happy with the credentials I provide to identify myself with them, some of which being provided by bits of hardware they have issued to me.

So, it seems to me that maybe they could lead individuals towards some kind of solution whereupon such institutions could vouch for a person’s digital identity, provide that person with tools (possibly hardware) to manage it, and could help that person restore their identity in cases of loss or theft. This kind of thing is probably happening already, given that smartcard solutions have been around for a while and can be a component in such solutions, but here the difference would be that each of us would want help to manage our own identity, not merely retain and present a bank-issued identity for the benefit of the bank’s own activities.

The Real Problem

The LWN.net article ends with a remark mentioning that “the email system is broken”. Given how much people complain about it, yet the mail still keeps getting through, it appears that the brokenness is not in the system as such but in the way it has been misused and undermined by those with the power to do something about it.

That the metric of being able to get “pull requests through to Linus Torvalds’s Gmail account” is mentioned as some kind of evidence perhaps shows that people’s conceptions of e-mail are themselves broken. One is left with an impression that electronic mail is like various other common resources that are systematically and deliberately neglected by vested interests so that they may eventually fail, leaving those vested interests to blatantly profit from the resulting situation while making remarks about the supposed weaknesses of those things they have wilfully destroyed.

Still, this is a topic that cannot be ignored forever, at least if we are to preserve things like genuinely open and democratic channels of communication whose functioning may depend on decent guarantees of people’s identities. Without a proper identity or trust infrastructure, we risk delegating every aspect of our online lives to unaccountable and potentially hostile entities. If it all ends up with everyone having to do their banking inside their Facebook account, it would be well for the likes of Mozilla to remember that at such a point there is no consolation to be had any more that at least everything is being done in a Web browser.

One Response to “In Defence of Mail”

  1. Owen Davis Says:

    I hate it when trying to contact a http://essayguard.com/services/research-paper-writing site’s owner or editor, you finally find that one well-hidden mailing address, compile a brilliant pitch and – receive the “address not found” notification. HATE it.