Deleting Email's Original Sin: An Historical Perspective

Can DMARC do for email security what SSL certificates did for e-commerce?

For consumers and businesses alike, opening email has long been an exercise in trust. Do you know that the person or company whose name appears in the ‘From’ field really sent that message? Are you sure? As the CEO of an email authentication company, those are the questions that keep me (and my clients) up at night. 

But it wasn’t always that way. For most of the past 40 years, we just took it on faith that the sender’s name and email address of the sender in our inbox are legitimate. That’s because when the wizards who first created the Internet initially set up email’s basic protocols, they balanced costs in computing power, implementation, and ease of use versus the risk of fraud. At the time, it was nearly inconceivable that 80 percent of all email would be malware, phish or spam. So they didn’t include any provisions for authenticating the sender of an email.

That’s led to a rash of phishing attacks aimed at getting employees or customers to click on malicious links, send W-2s and employee data to scammers, or wire funds into criminals’ accounts. Just ask John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, whose emails were allegedly compromised by Russian hackers, or the unsuspecting employees at Snapchat who gave away highly sensitive payroll data to scammers, or Medstar Health in Washington DC, where someone, in all likelihood, received an email asking them to click on what seemed to be an innocuous link or PDF attachment, but was actually a virus that brought the entire system to its knees.

These  costly and dangerous attacks all reveal the deep vulnerabilities facing our national email and internet infrastructure today. The problem is pervasive — the FBI reports that just one scam, the BEC (Business to Email Compromise) is up 1,300% since last year, costing U.S. companies more than $3 billion dollars in losses.

DMARC: The Email Authentication Gold Standard
The good news is the situation is beginning to change for the better, thanks to a movement toward email authentication led by the major email service providers, including Google, Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft. These entities have recently converged around a set of open email authentication standards called DMARC  (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance). It’s the keystone global standard, integrating two older authentication standards and aligning them in a way that makes it possible to authenticate the identity of an email sender easily, reliably and quickly — essentially creating a white list of acceptable senders of email, and blocking unauthorized senders from delivery. 

In a world where the rise of third-party cloud services are increasingly common for enterprises, this is especially essential. Companies have far less visibility and control over the email sent on their behalf than in years past, creating concerns about compliance, best practices, and “shadow IT.” Luckily, word is catching on about DMARC, and increasingly, there are good free tools that can quickly tell you if your domains and external services are authenticating properly.

Lessons from the Past: Verisign and SSL
But if this rising concern of cyber safety all sounds a bit familiar, it should. In the late 1990s, ecommerce companies faced a similar “original sin” with the Internet’s basic lack of encryption. Users were increasingly reluctant to use their credit cards online since they were being stolen in massive numbers. A coalition of banks, credit card companies and retailers, worried the nascent e-commerce surge would be hurt, decided to act. Credit card transactions over unencrypted, plain-text Web connections had to stop. But getting encrypted SSL connections to work meant getting a digital certificate and learning how to configure it properly, which was a daunting prospect for many retail companies in the 1990s.

VeriSign stepped into this gap with an easy-to-use digital certificate authority and an array of related services. This allowed banks and Visa to enforce the use of Secure Socket Layer certificates (SSL certs). What happened next is now well-known: Thanks to SSL, the e-commerce revolution was able to blossom, boosting the economy and leading to myriad new industries.

With DMARC wiping clean email’s original sin, we are about to see a similar transformation of email-based communications and commerce. Phishing attacks that spoof domain names will be stopped cold, because no unauthorized parties will be able to send fraudulent emails that look like they come from someone else. Government agencies and companies will gain better control of their messaging systems, and will be able to designate which partners and vendors are allowed to send email on their behalf. And their IT teams will get detailed reports on who is actually sending email, and who is attempting to send spoofed messages, masquerading as their company.

Now it’s up to government and industry to act quickly to adopt these standards. The sooner we are able to regain trust in email, the sooner all of us — citizens, consumers, and employees alike — will again enjoy the benefits of this amazing invention. And the sooner we can all get some sleep when it comes to email concerns. 

Related Content:

Alexander García-Tobar is CEO and co-founder of ValiMail, a leading provider of email authentication services located in San Francisco, CA. Alexander has deep roots in the email authentication and cybersecurity space, as a global executive and advisor at Agari, … View Full Bio

More Insights