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.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.