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According to the STARTTLS Spec Section 5:

A publicly-referenced SMTP server MUST NOT require use of the
STARTTLS extension in order to deliver mail locally. This rule
prevents the STARTTLS extension from damaging the interoperability of the Internet's SMTP infrastructure. A publicly-referenced SMTP server is an SMTP server which runs on port 25 of an Internet host listed in the MX record (or A record if an MX record is not present) for the
domain name on the right hand side of an Internet mail address.

However, this spec was written in 1999, and considering it's 2014, I'd expect most SMTP clients, servers, and relays to have some kind of implementation of STARTTLS.

How much email can I expect to lose if I require STARTTLS for incoming messages?

5
  • 1
    Good question. Having TLS forced on isn't going to prevent SPAM though.
    – hookenz
    Aug 24, 2014 at 21:58
  • 2
    I'm not expecting it to, I just want the encryption (which I seem to be getting from 90% of incoming messages without having it required) :)
    – jackweirdy
    Aug 24, 2014 at 22:00
  • 3
    @Matt I checked recently received mails on one particular mail server and found this. Of mails received with TLS there was 4% spam, of mails received without TLS there was 100% spam. I wouldn't completely block mails without TLS based on this, but it certainly is a strong signal, which could be utilized in spam filtering.
    – kasperd
    Aug 25, 2014 at 9:35
  • @kasperd - you could turn on TLS or use it as a means to reduce spam, but it won't last. All it means really is that the smtp client they are using to push spam to your server is not using TLS, or perhaps tries to not use TLS by default but may try a TLS enabled session if it is required. At best, you'll see a temporary reduction in SPAM, but I expect it to come back to normal levels over time.
    – hookenz
    Aug 25, 2014 at 20:39
  • @Matt That applies to most of the approaches currently taken against spam. Another problem with most of the approaches is that they block too many legitimate emails. People rarely consider how many legitimate emails it is acceptable to block.
    – kasperd
    Aug 25, 2014 at 20:50

2 Answers 2

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Yes, it is still a bad idea.

Three reasons:

  1. While the RFC you cited (RFC 2487) is in fact obsoleted by the current standard RFC 3207, the current standard keeps the MUST NOT verbiage you quoted in your question.

  2. SMTP Clients are not required to implement STARTTLS. It is totally acceptable not to do so. While STARTTLS is becoming more common, it is absolutely not universal.

  3. As a result of reasons 1 and 2, if you require STARTTLS on all incoming connections you will lose mail.

However:

Your server - your rules. If you want to arbitrarily reject any mail for any reason, or even no reason - that is your right and privilege. (does not mean that it is necessarily a great idea however)

Side notes:

You wont prevent spam by requiring STARTTLS, even if you require mutual STARTTLS authentication. Spammers can get certificates too - or create self-signed ones. Rejecting self-signed client certs will also result in losing legitimate mail.

STARTTLS is point-to-point encryption. The connecting system can still read the contents of the email. If you want real privacy, you need something end-to-end, such as OpenPGP or S/MIME.

That said, STARTTLS does remove one possible avenue for interception or MITM and therefore it is still a good idea to use it when feasible, ie when the other side supports it too.

3
  • 2
    The note about certificates and spam is out of place. It is the receiver who need a certificate not the sender.
    – kasperd
    Aug 25, 2014 at 9:29
  • it wont help prevent spam. Even if you make mutual STARTTLS auth mandatory. Will update answer to clarify. Aug 25, 2014 at 11:55
  • 2
    +1 on note about spam. Just because it's encrypted it doesn't make it secure.
    – hookenz
    Aug 25, 2014 at 20:40
12

Google maintains open statistics on their percentage of mail that is encrypted, both inbound and outbound. This information should be extremely useful to you in determining whether this is worth implementing:

http://www.google.com/transparencyreport/saferemail/

2
  • I did not know that transparency report existed. Interesting. The top outgoing domain as of 2022 is AOL.com! And inbound and outbound email encryption is 86% and 87%. After the Snowden Revelations, email encryption shot up from less than 30% to over 60% in just a year. By late-2016, 80% of all inbound traffic to Google was encrypted and has remained above 85-95% since mid-2017. Apr 9 at 5:34
  • Considering spam is at least 50% of all email, you can deduce that most spammers are encrypting their mail transmissions (according to Google's transparency report). Google could be blocking most spam at the SMTP protocol layer and this traffic may not show up in the reports because it is not delivered mail. Apr 9 at 5:36

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