Privacy advocates welcome Yahoo Mail HTTPS roll-out

Yahoo starts providing users with the option to encrypt their webmail sessions

Digital rights and privacy advocates have welcomed Yahoo's decision to provide its users with an option to enable HTTPS (HTTP Secure) for their entire webmail sessions.

"We're really happy that Yahoo! is starting 2013 right by letting Yahoo! Mail users use HTTPS to access their e-mail accounts securely," the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said Monday in a blog post.

In November, the EFF, together with other privacy, security and human rights advocates and organizations, sent a letter to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer asking that the company implement full-session HTTPS for its communication services, including email and instant messaging.

HTTPS, a combination of the HTTP and SSL/TLS protocols, encrypts the traffic between Web clients and servers and prevents potential attackers from intercepting and inspecting potentially sensitive communications.

The lack of full-session HTTPS can be exploited by attackers to hijack accounts and intercept traffic on open wireless networks and also enables some governments that control the Internet infrastructure in their countries to spy on the private communications of political activists, members of the press and other individuals.

"Over the last several years, Yahoo! has repeatedly been urged by security experts to adopt HTTPS, but has taken no visible steps to do so," the privacy advocates wrote in their November letter to Marissa Mayer. "Unfortunately, this delay puts your users at risk, which is particularly disturbing since Yahoo! Mail is widely used in many of the world's most politically repressive states. There have been frequent reports of political activists and government critics being shown copies of their email messages as evidence during interrogation sessions, underscoring the importance of providing basic measures to protect the privacy of e-mail."

"Some of us have already been compelled to recommend that users avoid Yahoo! Mail because of its continued lack of essential security protections," they wrote at the time.

On Dec. 11, Yahoo started rolling out a new Yahoo Mail user interface for Web and Windows 8 and released new versions of its Yahoo Mail mobile applications for iPhone and Android.

The new Yahoo webmail interface has a "Turn on SSL" setting in the Mail Options menu. However, the setting is off by default and needs to be manually turned on by users who wish to take advantage of it. "If you're a Yahoo! Mail user, please take this step right away to protect your privacy when reading and writing e-mail," the EFF said Monday.

"Access is encouraged to see that Yahoo! is now supporting HTTPS globally for its mail and messaging services, an important and overdue step for the security and privacy of its users," AccessNow.org, a digital freedom advocacy group that also signed the November letter, said Friday in a blog post. "Pending technical analysis of its implementation, we believe this decision by Yahoo! responds to some of the concerns raised by civil society and security experts, and signals a continuing strengthening of their services' privacy protections."

Yahoo's competitors have supported full-session HTTPS for some time. Google implemented full-session HTTPS as an optional setting in Gmail back in 2008 and at the beginning of 2010 it turned it on by default for all Gmail users. Microsoft added the option in Hotmail in November 2010 and the new Outlook.com webmail service uses it by default.

Facebook and Twitter have had support for full-session HTTPS since 2011 and earlier this year they started enabling it by default for all of their users.

The next important step for Yahoo would be to enable HTTPS by default globally across all of its products and services, Access said.

In the meantime, the EFF will attempt to tweak its HTTPS Everywhere browser extension so that it always turns on HTTPS for Yahoo Mail even if users are unaware that the setting exists in their email options.

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