Using AWS to help secure your email domain: the MTA-STS website

I recently posted about using AWS to provide very cost-effective, Scalable, Secure Static websites. In this post, here’s a valid reason you should do this now, to publish a new website on your domain that has one, simple file on it.

Email on the Internet has used SMTP for transferring email between mail transport agents (MTAs) since 1982, on TCP port 25. The initial implementation offered only unencrypted transport of plain text messages.

It’s worth noting that people, as clients to the system, generally will send their email to their corporate mail server, not directly from their workstation to the recipient; the software on your desktop or phone is a Mail User Agent (MUA), and your MUA (client) transfers your outbound message to your MTA (mail server), which then sends the message using SMTP to your recipients MTA, and then when the user is read they sign in and read their mail with their MUA.

The focus of this article is that middle hop above – MTA to MTA, across the untrusted Internet.

SMTPS added encryption in 1997, wrapping SMTP in a TLS layer, similar to how HTTPS is HTTP in a TLS wrapper, with certificates as many are familiar with, issued by Certificate Authorities. This commonly uses TCP port 465. And while modern MTAs support both encrypted and unencrypted protocols, it’s the order and fail-over that’s important to note.

Modern Mail Servers will generally try and do an encrypted mail transfer to the target MTA, but they will seamlessly fall back to the original unencrypted SMTP if that is not available. This step is invisible to the actual person who sent the message – they’ve wandered off with their MUA, leaving the mail server the job to forward the message.

Sending an email, from left user, to right, via two MTA servers.

Now imagine an unscrupulous network provider somewhere in the path between the two mail servers, who just drop the port 465 traffic; the end result is the email server will assume that the destination does not support encrypted transfer, and will then fall back to plain text SMTP. Tat same attacker then reads your email. Easy!

If only there was a way the recipient could express a preference to not have email fall back to unencrypted SMTP for its inbound messages.

Indeed, there’s a similar situation with web sites; if how to we express that a web site should only be HTTPS and not down graded to HTTP. The answer here is the Hypertext Strict Transport Security header, which tells web browsers not to go back to unencrypted web traffic.

Well, mail systems have a similar concept, called the Mail Transport Application Strict Transport Security, or MTA-STS defined in RFC8461.

MTA-STS has a policy document, which allows the preference for how remote clients should handle connections to the mail server. It’s a simple text file, published to a well-known location on a domain. Remote mail servers may retrieve this file, and cache it for extended periods (such as a year).

In addition, there is a DNS text record (TXT), named _mta-sts.$yourdomain. The value of this for me is “v=STSv1; id=2019042901“, where the ID is effectively used as a timestamp of when the policy document was set. I can update the policy text file on the MTA-STS website, and then update the DNS id, and it should refresh on clients who talk to my mail server.

The well-known location is on a specific hostname in your domain – a new website if you will – that only has this one file being served. The site is mta-sts.$yourdomain, and the path and filename are “.well-known/mta-sts.txt‘. The document must be served from an HTTPS site, with a valid HTTPS certificate.

Here’s mine for my personal domain: https://mta-sts.james.rcpt.to/.well-known/mta-sts.txt, and here is the content at the time of writing:

version: STSv1
mode: enforce
mx: mx0.james.rcpt.to
max_age: 2592000

So an excellent place to host this MTA-STS static website, with a valid TLS certificate, that is extremely cost-effective (and possibly even cost you nothing) is the AWS Serverless approach previously posted.

You can also check for this with Hardenize.com: if you get a grey box next to MTA-STS for your domain, then you don’t have it set up.

Of course, not all MTAs out there may support MTA-STS, but for those that do, they can stop sending plain text email. Even still, don’t send sensitive information via email, like passwords or credit card information.

The MTA trying to send the message may cache the STS policy for a while (seconds as indicated in the file), so as long as TCP 443 is available at some time, and has a valid certificate (from a trusted public certificate authority), then that policy can persist even if the HTTPS MTA-STS site is unavailable later (eg, changed network).

Its worth noting that your actual email server can stay exactly where it is – on site, mass hosted elsewhere; we’re just talking about the MTA STS website and policy document being on a very simple, static web site in Amazon S3 and CloudFront.

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