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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Delivery status notifications

One common theme in communications between persons trained in the skills of cryptology is to send curious, unusual or manifestly unlikely responses to emails at unusual times, containing unusual texts. This author has observed this not just in Europe but also substantially across the Middle East. This gives rise to the question of whether the sending of mysterious delivery status notifications is an effective form of cryptology.

Gmail is used by members of certain professions to convey confidential messages, traditionally in draft emails to which more than one party has password access in respect of the relevant Gmail account. For this reason, Gmail, is known within certain professions to be a tool for covert transmission of communications. For precisely that reason, certain persons associated with those professions may pretend not to receive emails sent from Gmail addresses whereas in fact they do. Indeed they may devise complex and elaborate schemes to send error messages to those who write to them from Gmail addresses. These often go by the title of “Delivery Status Notification”, stating that the recipient server refuses to accept the Gmail email and there is a delay in delivery. There may be one or more of these emails, but the typical routine is that there are three. There are two emails that say that by reason of the recipient server refusing to accept the email, there is a delay; and then there is a third and final email saying that delivery of the email has failed permanently.

The time periods between these three emails are generally arbitrary. Or indeed they are not arbitrary at all; they are sent by the recipient as encrypted messages to convey to the sender communications that may relate to the subject title or contents of the email. Hence Gmail delivery status notifications are a form of cryptology.

Because it is Gmail that has traditionally been associated with the transmission of covert electronic communications, these sorts of delivery status notifications do not occur when one writes to a recipient of a an email who is traditionally accustomed to receiving encrypted communications from another server that is not based upon Gmail. Indeed Gmail, while commonly perceived as a safe and secure form of email communication, also has a well-known series of backdoors that render it of interest to intelligence communities across the world. That is why a number of people working in the intelligence communities do not accept (or purport not to accept) emails from Gmail addresses.

Because Gmail is so well-renowned as an intelligence product, as well as being a very good and secure email server used by people around the world, it has acquired a certain notoriety. It is possible for members of intelligence communities across the world to interfere with Gmail accounts, and to send emails in the name of a Gmail user that the account user had no intention be sent; and also to block emails to Gmail accounts. On the whole this requires governmental skills and experience. But it is more common than one might think.

If one is serious about preserving one’s communications from oversight and interference from governmental authorities, malicious or benign, then one would be well advised to stay away from Gmail; or, to have multiple overlapping and unconnected Gmail accounts. One of Gmail’s curses is the propensity of the Gmail servers to connect related Gmail accounts by reference to associated computers and/or mobile telephony devices, and/or telephone numbers that are shared by devices that use associated Gmail accounts. It is extremely difficult to prevent one’s various Gmail accounts from associating themselves with one-another; and most modern mobile telephones virtually insist upon a person having a Gmail account as a condition to download the various contemporary mobile telephone applications. It takes the utmost care to keep one’s Gmail accounts distinct.

Gmail turns out to be a product that, while manifestly well-written and superlatively convenient, permits governments to invade the privacy of individuals and, in the case of malicious governmental influence, to interfere with their electronic communications. Take great care in the use of Gmail products. Use them only for generic and commercial purposes. Do not use them in your communications with government or other public organisations, or you may find that your communications are interfered with. There are plenty of other high quality email servers that do not carry with them such substantial risks of electronic communications interference.

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