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Computer Security: Email equals letters


The old folks among us might still remember. Taking out a sheet of plain white paper. Or glossy. Handcrafted. With structure. Or elegantly, perfectly white. 80 g. 120 g. 240 g. And a pencil, a ballpoint pen or even a fountain pen. Sharpening it. Filling its reservoir with ink. Also sharpening the mind. Filling it with ideas. A message. To a loved one. Putting those thoughts to paper. Joined-up handwriting. In one flowing line. Right down to the “Yours truly” and the signature. A work of art. With compassion. Finished off with a proper envelope. Tasting the weird flavour of the glue when pasting it shut. Maybe even sealing it with wax. And finalising it with the name and address of its destination. Possibly indicating the sender. The good old days. Writing letters.

Much of this has been lost when moving to digital letters. Aka emails. No paper. No pencil. And definitely often also a huge lack of sharpness of mind. Thoughts. Devotion. Just a hack on the keyboard. Cold. Emotionless. With only its speed and the lack of a need to lick the envelope as advantages. And the former could even be disputed. It’s unfortunate that the romanticism of writing letters got lost in emails.

Even more unfortunate, however, is the fact that emails still follow the technical principles of letters: while the recipient’s address must be 100% correct to arrive safely at its destination, the sender can be whomever you fancy. Your name (if you’re an honest soul). The name of your neighbour (whom you despise). Donald Duck at Disneyland, Paris (funny, funny!). The same name as the recipient (to confuse them?). That of the tax authorities (to scam). Or just left out (total anonymity if you don’t happen to send it from your standard mail client). In short, email senders can be spoofed. They don’t tell you anything about the sender. Nothing. Nichts. Nada. Rien.

When receiving an email, therefore, please don’t rely on the supposed sender. Rely on the overall package. Its contents. The thoughts and romanticism, if any, put into its words. Their meaning. The way they connect to you. Your being. Your personal life. Your professional duties. Is there a resonance? A correspondence? Is it in a language you speak? Or, quite simply, does the email make sense to you? Please note that J. Bieber and B. Spears will not send around nude pictures of themselves. That your ex-spouse is very unlikely to still send you love letters. That no legitimate firm will ask you to reply with your password. That you will never receive a valid invoice from a company with which you do not have any contractual engagement. And if the sender is pressing you hard, asking for money, with tight deadlines (“Please speed up the payment immediately”), or confronting you with embarrassing information (“I know you love watching porn”), you should definitely hold fire!

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In all these cases, STOP – THINK – DON’T. DON’T REPLY (in particular don’t reply with your password). DON’T OPEN attachments. DON’T CLICK on embedded links. Tame your curiosity. Delete those mails. It’s better to be safe than sorry. And if in doubt, just check with us at Computer.Security@cern.ch.

Remember the good old paper letters. Only if they touched your heart did you file them away with your keepsakes. As a souvenir. Forever. All the others were destroyed or went unanswered. Maybe the time has come to take out paper and pen, sharpen your mind and send some romantic words to your beloved?


Do you want to learn more about computer security incidents and issues at CERN? Follow our Monthly Report. For further information, questions or help, check our website or contact us at Computer.Security@cern.ch.