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Surprising Email Facts

March 7, 2014

© 2014 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine 

Did you know that email, when sent from your email server to another, may be vulnerable and readable by the public? Or that the route between you and your recipient’s email server may include more than a dozen destinations in different countries? These are surprising truths!

Why Do I Care?
We’re dealing with two issues in this article; let’s tackle this question for each.

  1. Email Vulnerabilities. Churches and ministries send lots of email! And some email contains very sensitive information about team members, church members, organizational management issues, legal challenges, and more. If precautions are not taken, it’s possible that someone could sniff your Internet traffic with widely available free tools and read your email content in clear text.
  2. Internet Routes. The Internet Super Highway is not like an Interstate. The route from one location to another is usually not direct, and can cross continents or even borders multiple times! And the routes change constantly. This may explain why sometimes it seems like sending an email or browsing a website can feel sluggish and even get frustrating.

 What’s the Problem, Exactly?
As some might say, “These aren’t problems; they’re features!” But these features, or attributes of how the Internet was designed, can cause issues.

The issue of greatest concern in this article is that of email vulnerability. If email is sent from one email user to another in the same email server, that email can be private and encrypted (assuming the server is secured properly). But if email is sent from someone in one email server to someone in another email server, the email may or may not be private. And that can be a problem for some sensitive email content.

Consider, for example, that you are sending an email to a board member– from your Exchange server email account to his/ her Yahoo email account. It’s possible that the content of that email will pass through the Internet in clear text, which means that anyone sniffing the Internet may be able to easily read the email. What if that was about a staff or church member disciplinary issue, or about a legal challenge facing your organization?

The tools needed to sniff Internet traffic are readily available and free. If you’d like to see how easy it is for someone with some of these tools, watch this YouTube: And yes– there are people out there who do this kind of thing!

How Can I Protect our Organization?
There’s a technical and a non-technical response to this question. The technical response is to set your email server to try to communicate with other email servers via TLS whenever possible, and then to test the email addresses of each of your board members to see if their email server communicates via TLS. But that’s probably more than you want to know.

The simple and non-technical solution for this problem is to simply give your board members– and members of other committees that deal with sensitive information— an email address in your server! If you’re using a Microsoft Exchange email server and you’re a church or ministry, the cost is only about $3 one time for each mailbox license. Then simply ask them to agree to only email about your organization’s issues via that email address.

For the rest of your team, they need to be trained and constantly reminded about this issue. For instance, if someone decides to use their personal email address, the communication may not be secure.

What About the Internet Route Issue?
Here a couple of pictures I took of trace routes between my office in Southern California and a couple of clients.
This route goes from Los Angeles to Atlanta, and crosses the country six times in the process! Too bad we don’t get frequent flier miles for all of that distance!

This route is from Los Angeles to Charleston, South Carolina, and spends quite a bit of time in a few countries in Europe!

And… Why Do I Care?
Sometimes it seems like your email takes a long time to get to it’s recipient. This helps put that in perspective.

But there’s a more important time when you may really care. If you’re beginning to move services into the cloud, this can impact your systems’ performance. For instance, if you have a hosted server that interacts with another hosted server, if they’re in different datacenters the efficiency of their interactions will be slower than if they’re in the same datacenter.

So, I recommend:

  1. Email Vulnerabilities. Provide email accounts on your email server for any non-staff team members to facilitate the private communication of data via email. The cost is low, and the value is high.
  2. Internet Routes. As you move towards cloud computing, place as many servers and service resources as possible in the same datacenter. The efficiency with which they interact with each other will be optimal, and that will speed up your processing and minimize the potential for errors.
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