Keeping email private…

Whenever one of the market-anointed tech titans speaks, people start to pay attention to their privacy… or lack thereof. In this instance, the question received regarded email, asking about alternatives to Microsoft & Google offerings, as compared to a Swiss service ProtonMail. Get your beverage(s) ready, this is going to be a long one.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I did not sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night. This discussion is relative to my understanding of United States Laws and court decisions. Your mileage may vary. 

First – how much inconvenience are you willing to suffer to keep your email private? What are you willing to pay?

On the surface, ProtonMail (which prides itself on end-to-end-encryption, and being based in Switzerland) seems like the obvious winner, since there’s a free version. But there are issues here. First is the recently passed CLOUD Act (Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act, HR 4943, signed into law March 23, 2018) which allows for bilateral treaty-based exchange of overseas data between signatories. Note there is already such a treaty in existence with Switzerland. Proton’s off-stated “we only store encrypted data” claim is only good to the extent a user is not otherwise compelled to give up a password… or that the encryption is as described. Further, the only interface allowed to Proton is via web browser…

Gmail/Hotmail etc – “free” or “paid” – your email is going to be read by robots, mostly looking for advertising ‘bait’ or to build a better profile… (more on this later). Of course, these offerings win on convenience, and of course “free!”

Finally, there’s “roll-your-own” email. Invest in a server, configure your own email, have your own custom address pool, make your own filters and blocks, set auto-replies, run email lists… in simple terms, do everything the big boys can, but in your own way. All the mission-critical email for me has run on my own email server for more than twenty years. I use Gmail as a convenience, and am forced to use Outlook by various clients.

Now – let’s look at the legal implications on privacy, for the three offerings above. In the US, email privacy is governed by two major acts: the aforementioned CLOUD Act, and the ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 1986). Most email communications falls under the [ancient] ECPA guidelines (assuming it is stored in the US).

The ECPA defines five types of communication for email. Three of those types require a warrant for access; two require a subpoena. Subpoenas are routinely issued by lawyers in the name of the court; penalties may be assessed for non-compliance. Warrants are issued by a judge, have stringent requirements for issuance, and are usually enforced by police agencies.

The ‘warrant required’ types of communications are: email in transit, email stored on a home computer, and email in remote storage, unopened, stored for 180 days or less.

The subpoena required types of communications are: email in remote storage, opened, and email in remote storage, unopened, stored for more than 180 days.

I run a combination server – it is IMAP when I’m away from home, and POP3 when I’m home. In simple terms – during a work day outside the house, or while travelling, I’m running the server in much the same mode as one does with any web-based system. The email is available via remote access (remote storage in ECPA terms). When I’m home, I have a POP3 client which downloads the email to a home computer, and erases that mail from the server.

In this mode, my critical email is always in the warrant-required states per the ECPA. Warrants are issued under standards more than 200 years old – it must be based on probable cause, describe the place or person to be searched, and for what evidence the search is being requested; all under oath or affirmation to a judge or magistrate. I feel reasonably secure.

Hope this helps the decision matrix.

ps – Gmail’s robots really kick in after about 200 emails are in the account. Want to baffle the builder? Set Gmail to operate in POP3 mode (delete after download) and watch the fun. (Running NoScript and disabling the Google Stats scripts also screws up the profile builder).

 

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