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ARC and the SRS: Stop the email insanity πŸ”— 1713224239  

🏷️ email

There's a problem with most of the mail providers recently requiring SPF+DKIM+DMARC. Lots of MTAs (exchange, mailman etc) are notorious for rewriting emails for a variety of reasons. This naturally breaks DKIM, as they don't have the needed private key to sign messages which they are forwarding. And given the nature of the email oligopoly means you absolutely have to be under the protection of one of the big mass mailers with juice at MICROS~1 or Google, this necessitated a means to "re-sign" emails.

This is where SRS came in as the first solution. Easy, just strip the DKIM sig and rewrite the sender right? Wrong. Now you are liable for all the spam forwarded by your users. Back to the drawing board!

So, now we have ARC. We're gonna build a wall chain of trust, and we're gonna make google pay for it! But wait, all DKIM signatures are self-signed. Which means that peer-to-peer trust has to be established. Good luck with that as one of the mittlestand out there. Google can't think that small.

I can't help but think we've solved this problem before. Maybe in like, web browsers. You might think that adopting the CA infrastructure in Email just won't work. You'd be wrong. At the end of the day, I trust LetsEncrypt 100000% more than Google or MICROS~1.

So how do we fix email?

The core problem solved by SPF/DKIM/DMARC/SRS/ARC is simple. Spoofing. The sender and recipient want an absolute guarantee the message is not adulterated, and that both sides are who they say they are. The web solved this long ago with the combination of SSL and DNS. We can do the same, and address the pernicious reality of metadata leaks in the protocol.

Email servers will generally accept anything with a To, From, Subject and Body. So, let's give it to them.


To: $RECIPIENT_SHA_1_SUM@recipient-domain.test
From: $USERNAME_SHA_1_SUM@sender-domain.test
Subject: Decrypt and then queue this mail plz

(encrypted blob containing actual email here)

Yo dawg, I heard you liked email and security so I put an encrypted email inside your email so you can queue while you queue

Unfortunately, for this to work we have to fix email clients to send these mails which ha ha, will never happen; S/MIME and PGP being case in point. From there we would have to have servers understand them, which is not actually difficult. Servers that don't understand these mails will bounce them, like they do to misconfigured mails (such as those with bad SPF/DKIM/DMARC/SRS/ARC anyways). There are also well established means by which email servers discover whether X feature is supported (EHLO, etc), and gracefully degrades to doing it the old dumbass way. When things are supported it works like this:

  1. We fetch the relevant cert for the sender domain, which is provided to us by the sending server.
  2. We barf if it's self-signed
  3. We decrypt the body, and directly queue it IFF the From: and Envelope From: are both from the relevant domain, and the username's sha1 sum matches that of the original from.
  4. Continue in a similar vein if the recipient matches and exists.
From there you can drop all the rest of it; SPF, DKIM, DMARC what have you. Not needed. SpamAssasin and Milters continue working as normal. If it weren't for forwarding the fact you have to trust your mailserver with your life because all residential IPs are perma-banned, you could even encrypt the sender/reciever domains for marginally more deniability about which vhosts are communicating. That said, some scheme for passing on this info securely to forwards could be devised.

What can't be fixed is the reciever server having to decrypt the payload. The last hop can always adulterate the message due to email not actually being a peer-to-peer protocol because spam. This is what PGP & S/MIME are supposed to address, but failed to do due to not encrypting headers. Of course this could be resolved by the mailserver reaching out to the actual domain for a user that reaches out peer-to-peer and asking for a shared secret. Your mailserver could then be entirely flushed down the commode in favor of LDAP.

So why hasn't it happened, smart guy?

In short, the situation being what it is would be why everyone long ago threw up their hands and said "I may as well just implement a whole new protocol". At some point someone has to do the hard work of pushing a solution like this over the finish line, as people will not stop using email for the same reason we still use obsolete telephones. What is needed is for mailops to reject all servers without MTA-STS and sending unencrypted, adulterated emails. Full Stop.

Unfortunately the oligopoly will not, because their business model is to enable spammers; just like the USPS, that's the majority of their revenue. If I could legally weld shut my mailbox, I would. But I can't because .gov hasn't figured out a way to communicate which isn't letter or fax. It's the same situation with email for anyone running a business. The only comms worth having there are email or zoom; our days are darkness.

The security conscious & younger generations have all engaged in the digital equivalent of "white flight" and embraced alternative messaging platforms. They will make the same mistakes and have to flee once again when their new shiny also becomes a glorified adeverising delivery platform. They all eventually will flee to a new walled garden. Cue "it's a circle of liiiiife" SIIIMMMBAAAA

Is there a better solution?

Yes. It even worked for a number of years; it was called XMPP with pidgin-otr. Email clients even supported it! Unfortunately there wasn't a good bridge for talking with bad ol' email. Now everyone has forgotten XMPP even exists and are gulag'd in proprietary messengers that have troubling links to the spook aristocracy.

The bridge that has to be built would be an LDA that delivers email to an actual secure, federated messaging platform rather than a mailbox in the event it looks like it oughtta. In short, it's a sieve plugin or even a glorified procmailrc. From there you have to have a client that distinguishes between the people you can actually talk to securely rather than email yahoos. Which should also helpfully append a message at the top of the email body instructing people how to stop using email onto replies. As to the actual secure messaging platform, I'd use matrix.

There's probably a product somewhere in here to have a slick mail client which knows how to talk email, matrix, rss and activitypub. After all, we still need mailing lists, and activitypub is a better protocol for doing that. Hell, may as well make it your CMS too. More homework for me.

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