Simple, anonymous, blockable Email

How To Leverage Email In Your Favor

 Photo by  Kyle Glenn  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Most of the people I know in the world of cybersecurity rightly focus on deeply entrenched matters: server virtualization and containerization, software sandboxing, and helping to train employees to avoid social engineering hacks. But there’s one technology that we all continue to use that hasn’t really evolved at all since the 1960’s: EMAIL.

That’s right, friends: the technology behind today’s email is nearly identical to email during the early days of ARPANET including the same TCP/IP, SMTP, IMAP and POP protocols. But despite the availability of newer technology like texting, social media, Slack and video chatting, email is not only still going strong, it’s actually thriving. Recent statistics show that in 2017, 296 billion emails were sent on average… per day. Businesses and individuals use email at an almost alarming rate. During the time I worked at Nike (2014–2016), most of the staff I knew LIVED in their email inboxes: it was, even more than Slack, the endless hole from which no light could escape. Ok, that’s a bit dramatic, but you get my drift.

Email is still a powerful and preferred tool for both personal and business communications. As powerful as it is, however, email comes with one notable problem:

There’s no way to have just one email address

The demands of modern life and business require that we have multiple email addresses for different functions. A personal example: I’m a tech writer, a teacher of improvisation, and a technology consultant, so I maintain different email addresses for each of those roles. But those are just my business needs: like most people, I also have personal email needs as well:

  • I belong to various groups and organizations with web portals that require an email address for signing up and logging in.
  • I’ve subscribed to various newsletters and services which require a valid email address — one that can be confirmed — to sign up.
  • I shop for goods and services online. Every new store from which I purchase always requires a valid email address to register before I’m given access to shopping.

In the early days, I had one email address and I’d give it out to any person, company or service that asked for it. I quickly found my inbox overrun with spam and sales pitches from solicitors and advertisers. Email’s ubiquity and popularity forced me to rethink how I used the technology to increase both my privacy and security. I started by creating and using a bunch of non-personal email addresses: I did this by going to sites like Hotmail, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft and creating different, free email addresses for myself to use for banking, shopping, and any of the various web memberships I maintained. It didn’t take long for me to have a collection of 20+ email addresses along with a need to manage all of their various logins and passwords.

It was awful, time-consuming and very inconvenient. While my strategy of having different email addresses for each subscription was smart, I needed a new tool — if one even existed — to better manage all of those email addresses. More importantly, my solution needed to be cheap or free, easy and convenient to use, and very scalable in case I wanted to use it a lot. 

My Solution

I discovered 33mail while doing research for another article of mine about restricting personal data. The free service seemed to offer exactly what I was looking for in an email strategy solution:

  • unlimited, free, customizable email addresses
  • a simple, easy-to-use interface
  • the ability to halt spam instantly

After taking a deeper look and implementing the tool, I found it saved me so much time that I paid a small, $1 monthly fee for the company’s premium service. That tier provided me with:

  • No advertisements in forwarded emails
  • use of my own customized domain
  • a higher monthly data cap

I’ll break everything down in a moment, but I wanted to start with a basic video primer made by the company. Just click play below to view.

How To Sign Up:
When you sign up for 33mail, you’ll be asked to provide (pardon the irony) a valid email address, a 33mail username and a password. Choose your username carefully: it will become part of every future anonymous email addresses you’ll provide to other people, companies, and services. In fact, if you look closely, there’s a warning under the “Username” box telling you exactly that! Next, you’ll choose between one of 33mail three levels of service. I started with the free plan but quickly switched to the paid plan after I saw how well the service worked. 

33mailSignup.jpg

Choose Wisely...

your 33mail username will be a part of EVERY future email when you use their service...

How To Use It:
After confirming your valid email address, you’re ready to begin using the service. If you’ve choosen “VeryImportantPerson” as your 33mail username, 33mail gives you the email suffix of “@VeryImportantPerson.33mail.com”. Now, when you sign up for any online service, instead of providing your personal email address, provide a custom 33mail.com email address instead! In fact, to better track who is or is not sending you spam, I highly recommend that you create every email address based on the name of the service. For example:

  • if you’re signing up for Netflix, then use the following as your sign-up email address: “Netflix@VeryImportantPerson.33mail.com”
  • for the Sina Weibo, use “SinaWeibo@VeryImportantPerson.33mail.com” as your signup email address.
  • if you’re signing up for the home decor website Houzz, use “Houzz@VeryImportantPerson.33mail.com”.

Now, when 33mail starts to work, you’ll quickly know which company, service or individual is sending you an email.

How It Works:
After creating each custom email alias, 33mail simply auto-forwards every email from each alias to the personal email account you provided during the sign-up process. Here is what a typical auto-forwarded email looks like one it arrives in your inbox:

33mailSample1.jpg

You’ll notice that 33mail emails look different from every other email because they’ve included all relevant auto-forward information at the top of each email in a box, making it easy to identify. Inside of each of those boxes is another special tool: a link to block all further emails from that specific alias. Just click the link once and all emails to that address are blocked! 33mail even sends you a confirmation email to let you know it’s been done. I made a short video to demonstrate how this works, using the email you see pictured above:

Using 33mail as a solution has eliminated a great deal of hassle: I just continue to receive emails in my personal email inbox without ever needing to provide that address to anyone other than 33mail. Even better, I can REPLY to any of my auto-forwarded 33mail messages as I would to any other “normal” email. My reply gets routed through 33mail’s servers, removing any header information (called MX records) relating to my actual email address. Just remember: remove any info from your emails before clicking send, including all the 33mail auto-unsubscribe links in the free service tier!

What About Security:
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering about how much (or how little) the 33mail team ensures your privacy and security. This Reddit thread provides some key information about the service from one of its creators. Additional information can be found on their Terms of Service page. In short, here are the key details you’ll want to know:

  1. 33mail doesn’t share your emails with anyone. The one and only exception to this rule is when 33mail is contacted by law enforcement officials who request information on a specific individual who is breaking the law. 33mail has stated that they will only turn over personal information only if they confirm that law enforcement is correct about a user breaking the law with their service.
  2. 33mail doesn’t store email subject lines, main bodies, or attachments.
  3. 33mail doesn’t pass any metadata about the user to the company providing the small text-based ads in the free version.
  4. 33mail does store metadata like time sent, sender, recipient alias, and a spam score provided by our (internal) spam detection system, but only in the context of what is necessary for the “normal operation” of their system.

What Are The Limitations:
First, the good news: ALL tiers, including the free tier, allow you to create and use as MANY email aliases as you like. After that, there are a few limitations on the free service: the total amount of data forwarded to you via all of your accounts, the inclusion of small advertisements on each forwarded email, and no ability to use your own domain. That means free-tier users will need to use the 33mail.com suffix on all email aliases instead of any private domain name they might own. More details on each plan’s limitations here:

Screenshot 2018-06-25 14.40.21.png

Which Tier To Choose:
The free, basic tier is enough for most casual users, but I’ve enjoyed the service so much that I signed up for the $1/month paid tier. No matter which tier you choose, stop giving out your personal email address, friends. Instead, sign up for and start using 33mail instead for more privacy and security.