Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gmail's GPG Encryption

Better security typically goes hand in hand with increased inconvenience. But some human rights activists who used Gmail right now likely wish they'd put up with a little hardship to help keep hackers at bay. I'm not going so far as to recommend you use e-mail encryption, but I think this is a good time to take a close look at it.
To know how to use a collection of free or open-source software packages: GPG, or GNU Privacy GuardMozilla Messaging's Thunderbird e-mail software, and its Enigmail plug-in. CNET also hosts Thunderbird for Windows and Mac and Enigmail for all platforms.
Public key cryptography
Encryption scrambles messages so that only someone with a key (or a tremendous amount of computing horsepower, or knowledge of how to exploit an encryption weakness) can decode them. One form is called, curiously, public key encryption, and this is what GPG and Enigmail use.
Here's the quick version of how it works. You get a private key known only to yourself and a public key that's available for anyone else to use. The person you're corresponding with also has such a pair of keys. Although the public and private keys are mathematically related, you can't derive one from the other.
To send a private message, someone encrypts it with your public key; you then decrypt it with your private key. When it's time to reply, you encrypt your message with the recipient's public key and the recipient decodes it with his or her private key.
Messages in transit from one machine to another are a bunch of textual gobbledygook until decoded. If you're being cautious enough to encrypt your e-mail, you should be aware that there's still some information that leaks out to the outside world. The subject line isn't encrypted, and somebody might take interest in the identity of your active e-mail contacts and the timing and frequency of communications.
So how do you find out what your correspondent's public key is? You can either fetch the key firsthand from the correspondent, or you search for it on public computers on the Net called key servers--mine is stored at
This form of encryption has another advantage: you can sign your e-mail electronically so the recipient knows it really is from you. This time the process works in reverse: you sign your e-mail with your private key, then your recipient verifies it's from you using your public key.
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