As Yahoo makes encryption standard for email, weak implementation seen

The company's HTTPS implementation still needs some improvements, an SSL expert said

By Lucian Constantin, IDG News Service |  Security

Yahoo has started to automatically encrypt connections between users and its email service, adding an important security layer that rival Gmail has had for almost four years, but its implementation needs work, according to at least one security expert.

Yahoo Mail had support for full-session HTTPS -- SSL/TLS encryption over HTTP -- since late 2012, but users had to opt in to use the feature. Tuesday, the company delivered on a promise that it made in October to enable encryption for everyone by default by January 8.

"Anytime you use Yahoo Mail -- whether it's on the web, mobile web, mobile apps, or via IMAP, POP or SMTP -- it is 100% encrypted by default and protected with 2,048 bit certificates," said Jeff Bonforte, senior vice-president of communication products at Yahoo, in a blog post. "This encryption extends to your emails, attachments, contacts, as well as Calendar and Messenger in Mail."

While this is a great step, the company's HTTPS implementation appears to be inconsistent across servers and even technically insecure in some cases, according to Ivan Ristic, director of application security research at security firm Qualys, which runs the SSL Labs and SSL Pulse projects.

For example, some of Yahoo's HTTPS email servers use RC4 as the preferred cipher with most clients. "RC4 is considered weak, which is why we advise that people either don't use it, or if they feel they must, use it as a last resort," Ristic said.

Other servers, like login.yahoo.com, primarily use the AES cipher, but do not have mitigations for known attacks like BEAST and CRIME, the latter targeting a feature called TLS compression that login.yahoo.com still has enabled.

None of the servers checked by Ristic support forward secrecy, a feature that makes decryption of previously captured SSL traffic impossible even if the server's private key is compromised in the future. This is a property of the Diffie-Hellman Ephemeral (DHE or ECDHE) key agreement protocols. Instead, the Yahoo servers use traditional RSA key exchange.

Google's SSL configuration for Gmail supports forward secrecy since 2011 and Facebook and Twitter have also implemented it.

Because of various theoretical and practical attacks demonstrated against SSL in recent years, security experts also recommend the use of ciphers that function in Galois/Counter Mode (GCM). These are only available in TLS 1.2, the latest version of the protocol, but not all of Yahoo's servers support TLS 1.2.

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