Pretzel: Email encryption and provider-supplied functions are compatible

Trinabh Gupta, Henrique Fingler, Lorenzo Alvisi, and Michael Walfish

Proceedings of the ACM Special Interest Group on Data Communication (SIGCOMM) 2017.

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Emails today are often encrypted, but only between mail servers---the vast majority of emails are exposed in plaintext to the mail servers that handle them. While better than no encryption, this arrangement leaves open the possibility of attacks, privacy violations, and other disclosures. Publicly, email providers have stated that default end-to-end encryption would conflict with essential functions (spam filtering, etc.), because the latter requires analyzing email text. The goal of this paper is to demonstrate that there is no conflict. We do so by designing, implementing, and evaluating Pretzel. Starting from a cryptographic protocol that enables two parties to jointly perform a classification task without revealing their inputs to each other, Pretzel refines and adapts this protocol to the email context. Our experimental evaluation of a prototype demonstrates that email can be encrypted end-to-end and providers can compute over it, at tolerable cost: clients must devote some storage and processing, and provider overhead is roughly 5x versus the status quo.