multi factor

Security & Privacy Life Hack: advantages of a personal mail alias

Table of Contents

Introduction

You’ve probably got one or more personal and professional mail addresses. Who doesn’t?

And you probably want to keep that mail address safe from spammers, scammers or data theft.

Althoug you primarily use mail to communicate (send/receive messages), many platforms also use your mail address for authentication.

Security remark: It’s not always the best option to use single sign-on with platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Microsoft Account, Google, …

What’s the security issue?

The main issue with single sign-on is: when your mail address is breached or hacked, the hacker can use the breached mailbox fairly easily to login to the linked platforms.

And from a practical point of view, if you use that single personal mail address to subscribe to newsletters or you use that mail address for downloads protected by a “registration” wall, you’ll quickly experience a mailbox overload because of ‘spam’, eh.. .sorry commercial messages you didn’t ask for.

Another issue is, you usually have only 1 (one) personal mail address available on your mail platform, certainly for enterprise systems, you can’t create other alternative mail addresses at free will. Unless you own the domain name, of course, but that’s rather possible for personal use or small companies…

And except for the mail overload, you’ll notice that many companies sell your mail address to address brokers. And even with the GDPR in place, many of these address brokers have bad habits to scrape mail addresses from the internet, incl. public sources, government sources…

So, the question is, how do you manage this, to protect your personal data, to protect mailbox overload and abuse of your mail address?

First option is using MFA to increase security and block illegal authentication.

But MFA does not stop mail abuse. The mail alias to the rescue!

Implementing the mail alias

What is a mail alias?

A mail alias is an alternative name for the master mailbox. Usually a mail alias is forwarding mail to the target mailbox.

In many cases, that mail alias can also be setup or used as a temporary name for the target mailbox. It’s pretty cumbersome or difficult to switch a master mailbox on or off when you need it.

Purchase a Custom domain name

The most interesting option is purchasing a custom domain name (by preference a short URL).

In most cases, local domain registrars can offer you a custom mail domain of choice for a few bucks a year. It’s worth the money, I promise. Further explanation below.

Just a practical hint: make sure to use a domain registrar that offers unlimited mail aliases.

When you control the mail domain, you can forward any mail alias of the custom domain to your mailbox (eg news@short.url to subscribe to newsletters and filter them in your mailbox in a subfolder for newsletters).

Furthermore, when you own a domain, you can enable/disable a mailbox or alias. Meaning: block mail reception without deleting the mail address (keep the address, but desactivate it.)

Using the “+” mail alias option

If purchasing a custom domain is not an option, you can check with your mail platform or mail administrator to use a “+” alias.

That’s format supported by the internet standards (RFC 5233: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc5233), that allows to extend a master mail address with receiver suffixes (BEFORE the @ sign), that still deliver the mail to the receiver. Google calls it “task based” variations of the mail address.

You’ll generally find it back on the internet as “+” aliases (“plus” aliases).

Some examples:

See the references section at the end of the article, for details how this “+” alias works for the well known mail platforms… Google, Microsoft, … and the major free mail providers support the plus-alias.

Using dummy or temporary addresses against spam and registration walls

I don’t know how you do it, but it frequently happens that I need to download a “free” white paper, which only seems to be free if you ‘pay’ with your contact details.

In most of the cases, they force you to “consent” with the requirement to send you marketing,… in GDPR terms it’s not considered consent if it’s forced… But essentially they force you to submit your personal data.

If you don’t want to disclose your data, just for that single download, or … if you want to avoid getting too much spam, what do you do?

One-time use, temporary mail domains (not your own domain)

First and easy option is to search the internet for “temp mail”, “temporary mail addresses” or “disposable mail“, … synonyms for one time use mails.

You use these addresses for quick use, one shot hit.

Samples:

  • mailinator.com
  • temp-mail.org
  • guerillamail.com
  • mail.tm
  • many more…

Use your custom domain

An easier, but less free, but still cheap option, is to purchase your own custom domain (on the condition you can have multiple mailbox aliases).

The quick and dirty: create an alias like download@yourdomain.url, keep it disabled by default and only enable it when you need to receive a download link. Afterwards, disable it again.

In some cases you literally need to have a mail address just once. Eg, when you want to download a “free” white paper, many companies harvest your mail, put it in a CRM system and keep spamming you afterwards. It’s fairly difficult to escape the forced consent or registration.

Then you can use a temporary mail alias:

  1. you enable an alias or dummy address,
  2. register for the download with the alias/dummy,
  3. then disable the alternative mail address again.

That way the address cannot be harvested for spam or marketing you don’t need. Easy.

(When a address broker tries to use the disabled alias, they will get an NDR, non-delivery report, and delete the invalid mail registration from their farm…)

Advantages

Keep your inbox clean : Mail filtering using simple mail rules

One the most prominent advantages of using aliases is that most of the mail clients can use the receiver address (or alias) to filter and manage incoming mail.

Based on the target receiver alias, you can set simple rules to move incoming mail from your inbox to another folder.

Basically an mail alias offers a simple mailbox optimization technique to make your life easy.

Securing internet logins

Another major advantage of aliases: use it as an alternative identifier for single sign-on.

Instead of logging in to multiple platforms with the same mail address, you better use 1 unique alias address per platform.

For example:

Of course it’s quite important to use different passwords or authentication methods too (incl. MFA).

The main reasoning behind this approach is: if 1 login is breached or leaked, the other accounts are not impacted. If you don’t think you can manage this collection of passwords, there is one good tip: use a password manager to replace your memory.

Use a password manager anyway.

Detecting data breaches

When you use 1 mail address (alias) for every internet login, you can also trace very easily if a website is selling your data to partners, other companies or personal data brokers. You can simply see who sends mail, if that source domain is correctly linked to your alias… or not. If your login is used by unauthorized party you can initiate GDPR subject data access request to track how it got there (against both the original data controller and the secondary party).

And when using a custom domain (or some “+” alias mail providers), you can simple disable or remove the mail alias, so it becomes useless for the perpetrators.

On/Off Temporary mail (when using your custom domain)

In some cases you literally need to have a mail address just once. Eg, when you want to download a “free” white paper, many companies harvest your mail, put it in a CRM system and keep spamming you afterwards. It’s fairly difficult to escape the forced consent or registration.

When you can use a temporary mail, you enable an alias or dummy address, register for the download with the alias/dummy, then disable the alternative mail address again. That way the address cannot be used for spam or marketing you don’t want. Easy.

One-time use temporary mail domains

First and easy option is to search the internet for “temp mail” or “temporary mail addresses”

You use these addresses for quick use, one shot hit. No hassle, no admin. Quick and dirty.

Some more advantages

You can also link your custom domain to shortener tools like bit.ly. This way you can manage your social media and easily track your popularity or maintain statistics on your articles and views. (For Bitly, search for “bitly custom domain”)

Disadvantages

Custom domain management

Managing your own custom domain might be cumbersome, depending how user friendly the management of aliases is. Certainly managing dynamic aliases for multiple users… can time consuming. Certainly if you have a large volume of mailboxes and/or aliases to manage.

But managing a custom domain for own personal use, for a few bucks a year, is really worth the time and money. 

If you cannot disable “+” aliases …

… then you might be in trouble, because you cannot stop the abuse once the senders have registered the alias in their mail system.
In many cases, you’ll need to unsubscribe or directly contact the platform owner and demand to remove your data, which can be cumbersome or time consuming… Or you need to excercise your right to be forgotten in the official way. (Ref. GDPR, …)

Temporary mail domains blocked & open access

The major disadvantage is that a lot of spam (eh sorry), marketing websites that offer these ‘free’ downloads, will recognize and block public temporary mail domains (like mailinator, guerilla mail, temp mail, …).

In most cases you’ll have to try a few options, as some of these temporary mail domains have alternative mail domain options, like dynamic domains not only hosting main on the master domain.

VERY IMPORANT SECURITY NOTICE: whatever mailbox you use on these temporary domains, anyone can read or access these mailboxes, so make sure nothing important or private is sent to these mailboxes.

Bonus: the “oh shit rule”

While I’ve been focusing on the security & data protection features of the mail alias, I still want to mention an important principle to protect your reputation: the “oh shit rule”.

The principle is simple: delay the sent articles with one or more minutes before the mails are actually sent to the receiver.

It gives you a bit of slack if you want to fix a mail, or in worst case scenario cancel the mail if you have second thoughts or regret sending the mail, to avoid embarrassment or being forced to search for a new job.

Some useful references

Below you’ll find some interesting articles on managing aliases on the well-known mail providers

Gmail

Microsoft Office 365 “+” alias

Yahoo

Other providers

Other providers, like Protonmail, … also provide the alias “+” option, sometimes by default. Carefully check if you can remove the “+” alias or not, in case the alias got listed by address brokers.

Custom mail address RFC standard

https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc5233

BTW, did you know… that following the RFC standards, an email address is case sensitive. 😉

That alphabet of Security starts with I of “Identity”

It’s an understatement to say security is moving fast, it’s changing very rapidly and the pressure to keep up with it, increases too.

From various angles, people in IT (as in Information Technology), are under fire to keep the infrastructure secure. Cloud is getting mature, new features pop up every week.
It’s almost a contradiction, but also legislation is catching up to close the holes regarding the protection of people’s security and privacy.

In many cases, the first reaction of customers, management, ITPros, Developers, DevOps,… is to look for the ultimate and ideal tool that will help to plug the security hole.

But if you only focus on the tooling, you’ll discover rather sooner than later, it is not sufficient to get your security watertight.
One of the basic reasons is that tools can’t be implemented properly without involving people and processes. I don’t need to explain the PPT (people-proces-technology) or PPP (people-proces-products) triade, right?

Lots of security management approaches and certifications handle this triad (ISO27001, CISSP, … I’ll cover that another time.

(credits: smart picture of ITGovernance.co.uk)

Rather than diving into the search for a tool, you better take a step back and consider first.

What’s the primary function of security?
Protecting an item that you want to keep (safe), right?

[The reason (“why”) for keeping it safe = the CIA triad, Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability]

When you think about the processes (“how”) to secure  an asset (anything that is worth securing), there are 3 basics actions you need to define

  • authorization: what you can do with the asset (the CRUD stuff, create/read/update/delete)
  • identification: who needs the authorization?
  • authentication: the method to proof your identity (using passwords, passes, cards, 2FA, MFA, …)

This is essentially the foundation of my credo “no security without identity”

Just by interpreting the basic components of security, you directly hit the “PROCESS” part of the PPT triad.
Now, here’s were most technical people get into trouble… not knowing how to put this in practice.

But let me ask you a simple question: within the normal, usual businesses or companies, where does the identity process typically start?
Yes, correct, HR (Human Resources)

The second question: can you name at least 2 typical high-level HR processes (for people).
Answer: something like “hire” and “fire”, or synonyms like “onboarding/off-boarding”, “termination”, “end-of-life” (but that sounds pretty dramatic when talking about people…).

These 2 events announce the beginning and the end of a lifecycle, the identity lifecycle.
And to make it complete, you also need to define the life-in-between as people change over time.

BTW, just a small side step here: this does not apply to humans only, but any other asset in your environment has pretty much the same cycle and it does not matter if it’s considered “IT” or not… computer, certificates, smart cards, disks, tapes, … but also cars, documents, …

This idea to consider the lifecycle as universal, is a great approach to explain the “identity lifecycle” to non-techies that get involved in the identity lifecycle processes.

This is the common ground you can use to talk to HR people, business managers, Executive level, …

Now, if you look on the internet for pictures on identity lifecycle management, you’re smashed with a lot of complex schemas…

google_identitylifecycle

Many of results are variations of 3 essential processes

hire-change-fire1

Depending on your background you might name them differently, like:

1AA.png

For the sake of simplicity, when teaching IDM and security workshops I usually only keep the keywords “Hire”, “Change” and “Fire”.
Short and easy to remember for most people.

For your understanding, the circle approach  would assume you start over again after the “Fire” block, but that’s not always the case. The cycle might stop.
So, the approach below is easier to visualize for most people.

Clockwise:

  1. Starting the cycle at (1),
  2. updating the identity at (2),
  3. exiting the cycle at (3)

hire-change-fire2

As I mentioned, earlier, virtually any IT or asset related proces is basically working like this.

Now, let’s take it a step further… How does identity management control security?

A first thing to consider is the typical length of the hire-change-fire modules.

How many tasks/steps does it usually take to complete each of the 3 steps?
Keep the asset in mind and keep it simple…

Typical actions in a hire process:

  • signing contract
  • getting an network/AD account
  • getting an email address
  • getting building access
  • IT stuff (laptop, …)

Pretty straight forward…
How much time would it take, in simple cases to start working?  Hours if not days.

What about the change process? For example, you get promotion to team lead or head of department…

  • hand over your tasks to peers
  • get ramped up on new job
  • in some cases, there is segregation of duties, getting rid of existing rights permissions
  •  getting access to new environment
  • changing communications channels (notifications to stakeholders of change)

In reality, this usually takes a few weeks.

And what are the typical things your consider for the “fire” process?

  • informing stakeholders/customers
  • disabling the account
  • changing password
  • lock account
  • removing access
  • extracting documentation form personal storage
  • move documents to manager or team
  • handing over ownership
  • knowledge transfer
  • data backup/archiving
  • cleaning the mailbox
  • deleting the account (* not always allowed for various reasons)
  • sending legal / tax documents
  • and more…

As you can understand, this entire termination process might take months… In many situations the termination process must be executed in different steps, like:

  • Disabling the account till x+30 days (for example, revert in case the person gets a renewal)
  • Removing access on x+60 days
  • Kill mailbox on X+90
  • Remove the account on X+1y (or even: never)

In some cases accounts must be kept for legal reasons or tracking/cybersecurity reasons…

The further you go in the lifecycle, you need to combine more tasks, and tasks or decisions get more complex.

Overall you can distinguish 2 properties of these processes: duration and complexity. Both go up.

complexity

procesduration

Now, when considering security, why is this important?
Instead of discussing the impact of successful processes, it’s easier to find out what happens if it fails.

WHAT IF… (the process fails)??

Let’s run through the cycle again….

What if the “Hire” process fails?

  • you can’t access the building
  • you do not get an account
  • you can’t logon
  • you can’t access documents

Basically, on your first (few) day(s) you can’t work. Sorry!
But what’s the balance for security: just great, because the risk is nearly 0, except for a bad start and a bit of reputation damage..
At the end: you can’t do any harm, essentially.

In case of the “change” process, a larger part of the tasks and operations will impact the security posture.

When your “change” process fails,  for example

  • you can still access your old documents
  • you get more access (eg collecting access of your old and new role)
  • you start collection sensitive accesses over time
  • managers don’t know
  • user profiles get copied from existing colleagues in the same team (no ‘reset’ or the permissions before the new ones are assigned)

So for this second piece of the circle, the impact might be significant, over time.

But for the “end-of-life” the story is completely different, a failing “deprovisioning” scenario has major impact on the business and IT process

  • accounts stay active
  • accounts not being disabled
  • access not removed
  • active accounts not detected
  • account with highly privileged access still active
  • accounts being deleted too soon
  • unauthorized users that have access to critical resources
  • hackers go undetected for a long time, using sleeping accounts
  • hardware not returned,
  • data stolen,
  • over-use of budgets to software licenses that are not revoked
  • access badges allow unauthorized access to your building and environment
  • failure to ‘deprovision’ old hard disks properly expose your company data to interested (unauthorized) parties…
  • …,

It’s clear that a failing deprovisioning/end-of-life process has major impact on your enterprise security.

risk.png

And hackers or disgruntled employees like that.

Of course you can imagine the benefits of an efficient and effective end-of-life process. It’s the opposite.

Does that require you implement an automated identity management?
No.

That’s where ISO27001 and eg GDPR surprises a lot of people.

Once you’ve got the basic processes in place you can discuss tooling, not the other way around.

questforsecurity

You have
no security without managing your identity.

you want
no identity without security.

Did I mention  that I’ll be presenting more of this fun stuff on TechoRama 2017.
Check it out here: http://sched.co/9M94

I’m very proud to present a session on the ABC of identity: Maximizing security with 10 simple processes.

 

Note-to-Self: Microsoft Security Newsletter September 2014

Source: http://aka.ms/MSSecuritynewsletter

In this months newletter you’ll find guidance on:

  • Windows Phone 8.1 Security Overview
  • Windows Phone Security Forum for IT Pros
  • Create Stronger Passwords and Protect Them
    • Inlcuding  free online tool offered by Microsoft Research, called Telepathwords, for those that would rather have a randomly generated strong password created for them.
  • Two-Factor Authentication for Office 365
  • Multi-Factor Authentication for Office 365
  • Configuring Two-Factor Authentication in Lync Server 2013
  • Adding Multi-Factor Authentication to Azure Active Directory
  • Enabling Multi-Factor Authentication for On-Premises Applications and Windows Server
  • Building Multi-Factor Authentication into Custom Apps

And:

  • Get Started with Virtual Smart Cards

Plus much more… check it out at http://aka.ms/MSSecuritynewsletter