Privacy and security fears dog LinkedIn's new email service

LinkedIn wants its users to hand over their email experience, worrying many that security concerns have not been addressed.

Let’s say I work for your phone company. I call you and make an offer: most of your calls are from friends and family, but occasionally business contacts use your home number. If you want - and for no extra charge! - whenever that happens I’ll call beforehand to give you a biography of that person before connecting them to you. Y’know, so you’re better prepared. The only condition is that you need to let me screen all of your calls before they get to you, so I know when you’ll need me to call you first.

Interested? I’m guessing you’re not - it sounds like a reasonably large invasion of privacy for a negligible payoff. And yet it’s not far from the offer LinkedIn has made when it comes to your email, with a new service it calls Intro for its users who are on iOS:

What's happening under the hood: without Intro, your Mail app connects directly to the servers of your email provider (e.g. Gmail or Yahoo!) to download messages. With Intro, your Mail app connects instead to the Intro servers, which fetch messages from your email provider and then pass them back to your Mail app. As the messages pass through the Intro servers, we add the social context that helps you be brilliant with people.

For each of your emails, Intro tries to find the sender of the message on LinkedIn. If we find information, we include it at the top of the message, and you can tap to see more detail.

In other words, your emails go to LinkedIn, and then to you. If one of those emails is coming from someone with a LinkedIn account, it’ll stick a little bar at the top of the message containing a condensed version of that person’s LinkedIn account. And if you send an email to anyone else, it’ll have something similar at the bottom that links to your LinkedIn account. Here’s what it looks like (as mocked-up by LinkedIn):

It might seem like a lot of bother, but for LinkedIn it’s worth it if it means people choose to turn the iPhone’s default Mail app into a de facto LinkedIn app. The benefit for the user is that it makes it easier to sort the spam from the wheat, but for LinkedIn the benefit is that they get to define how someone experiences email. That’s a powerful way to get people to pay attention to your site - and LinkedIn is fully aware of just how many of its users ignore all those update emails it sends out all the time.

However, remember that LinkedIn is reading your emails to do this, in a way that exactly mirrors a man-in-the-middle attack. That’s a type of attack where someone slips in between two other computers on a network, intercepting each message that gets passed along and reading it as it goes. Sure, you might consent to it when it’s LinkedIn doing it, but it creates an attractive new target. The weakest point in the network isn’t you, or your email provider, any more - it’s LinkedIn. The site’s reputation as secure was damaged greatly by the hack of 6.5 million user passwords last year, so, perhaps understandably, people have been sceptical of how safe Intro is.

Blog posts like this one at security consultancy Bishop Fox lay out several perceived problems - such as that it appears to break cryptographic email, that it could mean you waive your legal right to attorney-client privilege in private correspondence, that it could violate your company’s security policy, and that LinkedIn is generally quite vague about the details of how Intro works - have forced LinkedIn onto the back foot.

Cory Scott, LinkedIn’s senior manager of information security, has written on the company’s blog to try and reassure users that Intro is nothing to fear. He writes:

Many things have been said about the product implementation that are not correct or are purely speculative, so this post is intended to clear up these inaccuracies and misperceptions.

When the LinkedIn Security team was presented with the core design of Intro, we made sure we built the most secure implementation we believed possible. We explored numerous threat models and constantly challenged each other to consider possible threat scenarios.

Scott claims that an outside security firm - iSEC Partners - has gone through Intro’s code “line-by-line”, and that Bishop Fox was incorrect to claim that Intro breaks cryptography.

However, take a look on social media, or through reddit, and you’ll see people making a point that it’s harder for LinkedIn to refute: even if Intro is secure now, social networks are notorious for updates that render things insecure, or things that were once private no longer being so. Not saying that LinkedIn would do this deliberately - obviously, they wouldn't - but mistakes happen. And for many, Intro looks like it could be a pretty terrible mistake in the waiting.

LinkedIn Intro rejigs how Mail works on iOS. (Photo: ekkiPics/Flickr)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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