Freedombone Blog

Freedom in the Cloud

Proxying email

Continuing on email integration with the web interface of Freedombone an email proxying screen has been added. This only applies to clearnet installs, so if you're running an onion version then you don't need to be concerned with this.

Why would you need to proxy your email? Well, the current state of email systems on the internet - as you may already be aware - is quite dire and heavily favours a few giant companies. If you're running an independent email server, as is the case with Freedombone, then it's highly likely that any emails you send will be blocked by other servers and you'll get a "delivery failed" type of message perhaps accompanied by a difficult to parse error. Even just a few years ago this wasn't always the case, and this aspect of the internet has been becoming increasingly closed to independents. Email blocking today is highly indiscriminate, with entire IP address ranges or countries being blocked by some systems. There doesn't need to be any actual evidence that you were sending out spam and in most cases you're just discriminated against by default because you're not one of the big companies. It is possible to get around this via proxying your emails through an SMTP server run by your ISP or another email service providing company. It's a less than ideal situation, but can make the difference between being in control of your own email or becoming a SaaS slave.

The email proxy screen can be accessed via the Mail icon by selecting the logo at the top of the webmail login screen. It looks like this:

Once you've entered the SMTP proxy server details then select Update and you'll then be ready to send out emails through it. That's all there is to it.

If you're sending to onion based email addresses then the proxying doesn't apply because it gets routed through the Tor network instead.

Making email easier

Mailpile has existed as an app within Freedombone for a couple of years, and it's a nice webmail client, but for a more mass market type of approach it's not ideal. The reason is that the setup is quite non-intuitive and assumes that you know what acronyms like SMTP, IMAP and GPG mean. It's highly doubtful that the average shopper knows about any of that, and chances are they just use Gmail because that's what they were instructed to do by the initial setup process when they first got an Android phone. Gmail didn't ask them for an IMAP domain.

On Freedombone an email server is part of the base install and it has the capability to send and receive messages using onion addresses. I thought it would be nice to have a webmail client which doesn't need any post-installation configuration and which can be used with noscript or with javascript turned off. At first I thought I might need to write something like that because every modern webmail client appears to make extensive use of javascript, but the prospect of writing a usable email system is definitely a non-trivial undertaking so I wanted to avoid doing that if possible.

The only non-javascript solution I found was Squirrelmail. Squirrelmail is an old system by technology standards, although not as old as the kernel. It pre-dates smartphones, and it's certainly not the most glamorous web software you've ever seen but it's functional and customizable to some extent.

So I added a customized version of squirrelmail to the web interface of Freedombone.

The login has been changed to a new logo, and it's linked up to themes and languages such that if you change that on the settings screen the webmail system also changes accordingly. Testing it on mobile in the vertical orientation it looks odd but in horizontal orientation its ok and quite usable. I made a couple of themes called freedom_light and freedom_dark using the same colors as the main web interface so that it looks somewhat consistent. And you can use it to send between onion or clearnet email addresses without much hassle.

So despite its age and smartphone agnosticism Squirrelmail still appears to be quite a good addition.

Apart from the usual advantages of onion addresses the biggest one here is that you don't need to be using GPG to still have fairly good communications security. It's not end-to-end in the strictest sense, but a lot more secure than email usually is. You can also use it via a Tor browser with the security level cranked up to the max if you want to.