Yahoo CISO Reveals Email Encryption Plan

Yahoo plans to provide its email users with end-to-end encryption in 2015. The aim is to make security more accessible to users.

Yahoo email encryption

LAS VEGAS—Six months ago, Alex Stamos joined Yahoo as its new chief information security officer (CISO). Rather than just try and maintain a security status quo, Stamos has some aggressive plans to improve security for Yahoo and its millions of users that he shared with a standing-room-only audience at the Black Hat USA conference on Aug. 7. One of his plans is an effort to provide end-to-end encryption for Yahoo Mail users.

The goal to provide end-to-end encryption can be seen in some respects as a reaction in the post-Snowden era, though Stamos billed the initiative as an effort to help make security more accessible for users.

Stamos rejects the notion held by some security and IT professionals that users are stupid and will mess things up, given the chance to do so. "If normal people can't use the system, then we are failing," he said. "Yes, it's true that a normal user will type their password into anything, but that just means we have to get rid of passwords."

Security professionals need to make decisions on behalf of regular users and be "security paternalists," Stamos said, adding that there still can be customization and choices available for power users.

Encrypted email has long been the domain of power users because the technology uses tools that are often complex and typically not easily integrated with Web-based email systems like Yahoo Mail. Stamos sees the need for easy email encryption within Yahoo Mail that is available to all users.

To that end, he announced that just-hired security professional Yan Zhu will help build out Yahoo Mail's encryption capabilities. Zhu had been working as a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and was the maintainer of the HTTPS Everywhere and Privacy Badger browser plug-ins.

The plan is to have full end-to-end encryption for all Yahoo Mail users in a system that will also work seamlessly with Google's Gmail service, such that a Yahoo user will be able to securely send an encrypted email to a Gmail user and vice versa.

Yahoo's plan is for the technology to be available in 2015, and there will a plug-in, as well, that will be available as open-source, Stamos said.

During the question-and-answer period that followed Stamos' session, a member of the audience asked how the planned end-to-end encryption will affect Yahoo's ability to monetize mail users. Currently, Yahoo Mail, as well as Gmail, serves email ads to users that rely on email content for the right context to provide relevant ads. If an email is fully encrypted, the email provider is not able to do any level of message scanning, making it more difficult to display relevant ads.

Although Yahoo will not be able to scan encrypted email to deliver relevant ads, those types of messages are likely not the type that would be relevant to advertisers, Stamos said.

"We predict absolutely no revenue impact from the encrypted mail effort," he said. "The truth is that the type of targeting that happens on emails is not for person-to-person emails."

Stamos said that email targeting works well for business-to-consumer relationships, for example, when a hotel sends a confirmation to a user. In that case, the Webmail system can target ads based on the location that might be attractive to the user.

"I don't think there will be any problem for Webmail companies to still make money," Stamos said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.