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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Theresa May knows she's talking nonsense - here's why she's doing it

The Prime Minister's argument increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in her words - the Tories your vote.

Good morning.  Angela Merkel and Theresa May are more similar politicians than people think, and that holds true for Brexit too. The German Chancellor gave a speech yesterday, and the message: Brexit means Brexit.

Of course, the emphasis is slightly different. When May says it, it's about reassuring the Brexit elite in SW1 that she isn't going to backslide, and anxious Remainers and soft Brexiteers in the country that it will work out okay in the end.

When Merkel says it, she's setting out what the EU wants and the reality of third country status outside the European Union.  She's also, as with May, tilting to her own party and public opinion in Germany, which thinks that the UK was an awkward partner in the EU and is being even more awkward in the manner of its leaving.

It's a measure of how poor the debate both during the referendum and its aftermath is that Merkel's bland statement of reality - "A third-party state - and that's what Britain will be - can't and won't be able to have the same rights, let alone a better position than a member of the European Union" - feels newsworthy.

In the short term, all this helps Theresa May. Her response - delivered to a carefully-selected audience of Leeds factory workers, the better to avoid awkward questions - that the EU is "ganging up" on Britain is ludicrous if you think about it. A bloc of nations acting in their own interest against their smaller partners - colour me surprised!

But in terms of what May wants out of this election - a massive majority that gives her carte blanche to implement her agenda and puts Labour out of contention for at least a decade - it's a great message. It increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in May's words - the Tories your vote. You may be unhappy about the referendum result, you may usually vote Labour - but on this occasion, what's needed is a one-off Tory vote to make Brexit a success.

May's message is silly if you pay any attention to how the EU works or indeed to the internal politics of the EU27. That doesn't mean it won't be effective.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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