Tech

Test: Tried out Thunderbird’s new PGP encryption

After extensive renovations, the Thunderbird version 78 should appear shortly. This not only puts an end to the old interface for extensions, but also integrates some functions such as the calendar or e-mail encryption via OpenPGP directly into the mail program – because the Enigmail extension will no longer work with version 78. We looked at the beta version of the Thunderbird and used it to send encrypted emails. Although the encryption function should not be available until autumn, it works surprisingly well.

After the first start of the third beta version of the Thunderbird 78 under Ubuntu 20.04, the revised design catches our eye. The included icon set makes the new Thunderbird much fancier and more modern than the previous version. Little by little we notice details that make working with the Thunderbird more pleasant. So when composing an email there is only one field for the email addresses, whoever wants to use CC or BCC, clicks on a small button and an additional CC field appears.

In addition to the settings, version 78 also implemented the account settings in a tab. The settings themselves have been significantly streamlined. With the standard installation, we are only greeted by: General, Composing, Privacy and Security, and Chat. Another innovation is the directly integrated calendar, which was previously maintained as an extension under the name Lightning and had to be installed manually.

The new Thunderbird (right) looks much fancier. (Screenshot: Golem.de)

Fewer add-ons thanks to new technology

Since Thunderbird 60, the mail program has supported web extensions that completely replace the old add-on format. All extensions that have not been migrated to the new format simply no longer work with Thunderbird 78. However, of the 10 most popular extensions that are listed on the Thunderbird website, most have already completed the changeover or, like Lightning, have been integrated directly into the Thunderbird. Nevertheless, some beloved expansion should no longer work after the update.

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With the add-on changeover, the Enigmail extension, via which Thunderbird could previously handle OpenPGP-encrypted emails, also disappears. Enigmail developer Patrick Brunschwig announced at the end of last year that due to time constraints, the extension could not be completely rewritten. But Thunderbird users can also encrypt their emails in the future: Together with the developers, Brunschwig programmed native OpenPGP support into the email program.

Thunderbird’s built-in PGP encryption is already working

The email encryption with OpenPGP, which is now integrated directly into the Thunderbird, is not yet completely finished and should only be available by default with the release of Thunderbird 78.2 in autumn, but it can still be tried out in the beta version. Already after the start of the Thunderbird we are informed about the end-to-end encryption on the overview page, also in the account settings there is a corresponding tab in each account. There an OpenPGP key can be generated for the corresponding email address or an existing key can be imported. We test generate a new key for our email address.

The menu is kept simple, we can set the time after which our key expires and choose between the encryption algorithms RSA with 3072 or 4096 bit and ECC (elliptic curve Curve25519). We would have preferred a standard setting here, because the selection of algorithms is not intuitive and opaque for newbies.

A short time later we find our key in the settings. There, encryption can also be set as the default so that encryption does not have to be activated for every email, but has to be deactivated for every unencrypted email. E-mail encryption S / MIME is also available as an alternative to OpenPGP, although it was previously integrated directly into the Thunderbird and is used more in the corporate environment. We write an encrypted test email.

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