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Hushmail swats code backdoor rumors

Safe as (straw) houses

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Web-based encrypted email service Hushmail has refuted rumours it stopped using software based on the source code published on its website.

Within the zip archive containing the Hush Encryption Engine is a Java executable (.jar) file called HushEncryptionEngine. But this isn't the same file found on Hushmail's mail servers, a poster to Cryptome pointed out over the weekend.

The behaviour raised concerns that Hushmail may no longer be safe to use until Brian Smith of Hush Communications stepped in to say that the wrong files were being compared. Rather than the Java executable, comparisons should be made between the applet in the source code and the applet running on Hushmail's servers. The other file contains debug information, so it does not match the file running on the website, he explained.

Although an innocent explanation for the apparent discrepancy was quickly found, it does illustrate lingering concerns about the absolute reliability of the service. For years Hushmail was considered a safe, reliable and straightforward way to send encrypted, confidential messages. But the revelation last year that Hush Communications, the Vancouver-based firm that runs Hushmail, was forced to hand over 12 CDs of decrypted data to US drug trafficking investigators has shaken this faith.

Hush Communications maintains that it only acted in response to a court order and it might be obliged to hand over clear data again, even if this meant sending a targeted user a poisoned Java applet or other such trickery. Users who needed more security ought to use the desktop version of packages such as PGP.

A section on the limitations of the service goes on to explain that viral infection on a user's PC can also compromise a user's Hushmail account. ®

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