In case you don’t know (and unless you live in Germany, you most probably don’t), De-Mail is an electronic communications service maintained by several German providers in accordance with German E-Government initiative and the De-Mail law declaring this as a secure form of communication. The purpose of the service is to complement traditional postal mail for the exchange of legal documents between citizens, businesses and government organizations.
Ever since its original introduction in 2012, De-Mail has been struggling to gain acceptance of German public. According to the latest report, only around 1 million of private citizens have registered for the service, which is way below original plans and not enough by far to reach the “critical mass”. That is actually quite understandable, since for a private person the service doesn’t bring much in comparison with postal mail (in fact, it even makes certain things, such as legally declining to receive a letter, no longer possible). Major points of criticism of the service include incompatibility with regular e-mail and other legal electronic communications services, privacy concerns regarding the personal information collected during identification process, as well as insufficient level of security.
Now the German government is attempting once more to address the latter problem by introducing end-to-end encryption. Their plan is to rely on OpenPGP standard, which will be introduced by all cooperating providers (Deutsche Telekom, Mentana-Claimsoft and United Internet known for its consumer brands GMX and Web.de) in May. According to Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s Federal Minister of the Interior, adding PGP support will provide an easy and user-friendly way of increasing the security of De-Mail service. Reaction from security experts and public, however, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.
Unfortunately, no integration of the plugin into De-Mail user directory is offered, which means that users are supposed to tackle the biggest challenge of any end-to-end encryption solution – secure and convenient key exchange – completely on their own. In this regard, De-Mail looks no better than any other conventional email service, since PGP encryption is already supported by many mail applications in a completely provider-agnostic manner.
Another issue is supposed ease of use of the new encryption solution. In fact, De-Mail has already been offering encryption based on S/MIME, but it couldn’t get enough traction because “it was too complicated”. However, if you compare the efforts necessary for secure PGP key exchange, it can hardly be considered an easier alternative.
Finally, there is a fundamental question with many possible legal consequences: how does one combine end-to-end encryption with the requirement for the third party (the state) to be able to verify its legitimacy? In fact, the very same de Maizière is known for opposing encryption and advocating the necessity for intelligence agencies to monitor all communications.
In any case, De-Mail is here to stay, at least as long it is actively supported by the government. However, I have serious doubts that attempts like this will have any noticeable impact on its popularity. Legal issues aside, the only proper way of implement end-to-end communications security is not to try to slap another layer on top of the aging e-mail infrastructure, but to implement new protocols designed with security in mind from the very beginning. And the most reasonable way to do that is not to try to reinvent the wheel on your own, but to look for existing developments like, for example, Dark Mail Technical Alliance. What the industry needs is a cooperatively developed standard for encrypted communications, similar to what FIDO alliance has managed to achieve for strong authentication.
Reconciling conflicting views on encryption within the government would also help a lot. Pushing for NSA-like mass surveillance of all internet communications and advocating the use of backdoors and exploits by the same people that now promise increased security and privacy of government services isn’t going to convince either security experts or the general public.
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