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Issue #610: March 31 – April 6, 2019

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Q: I belong to a group that plays golf together and receive a group e-mail with tee times. One person replied to all from his government computer and for some reason thought it necessary to encrypt his e-mail. I have been trying for two years to delete it and have failed while a receiving a Microsoft Outlook pop-up that My Digital ID can’t be found by the underlying security system.

– Mike B.
Niceville, Florida

A:  Digital IDs!  Great topic, so thanks for your question, Mike.  I’m sure this will be educational for a lot of people.

A “Digital ID” is pretty much what it sounds like.  It is an electronic (digital) version of the laminated ID cards people carry around to identify themselves in the physical world.  It also serves the same purpose as a physical ID card – to prove one’s identity online.  On the surface this might seem like a very underused capability.  After all, the anonymity of using the Internet is one of the leading reasons there is so much fraud out there, so if everybody used a Digital ID, we’d know with whom we were dealing, right?  Well, no.  A Digital ID only proves who someone is, not whether they are trustworthy, or of good character.  It’s also possible for phony certificates to be issued by unscrupulous people, so they aren’t the panacea they might seem.

A Digital ID is a type of electronic document, also called a digital certificate.  This certificate contains a well-defined set of data, such as who you are, the Certificate Authority or CA that issued the certificate, how much verification was done to issue the ID, and one half of the cryptographic information that is unique to this ID.  The crypto data is called the public key, and it is intended to be shared with the world.  It has a corresponding match, not surprisingly called the private key.  You must protect the private key, just like you would protect other critical documents that establish identity, such as a birth certificate, or a passport.

The two keys work together to verify an identity.  It’s all done using very complicated mathematics, which I’m not even going to begin to try and explain.  Just understand that the public key is used to mathematically scramble (encrypt) a digital source file.  Once encrypted, this file can only be unscrambled (decrypted) with the corresponding private key.

In your situation, since your friend was e-mailing from his government computer, he might not have had a choice whether to encrypt the e-mail.  That may be something that is enforced on him by his system administrator.  Or not.  I have no way of knowing.  What is clear is that you received an encrypted e-mail, and Outlook is telling you that it cannot find a corresponding private key to decrypt it.  You don’t care about its content anymore, and you want to delete it.  Now, I could see Outlook not allowing you to read it; not that it would be withholding it from you, because without the corresponding private key, there is no way to decrypt it, and so nothing to show you.  However, it’s interesting, and more than a little annoying that it won’t even let you delete it.  Thanks, Bill, I suppose.

Interesting enough, although you can’t read it or delete it, you can move it around.  That’s the key to ridding yourself of it.  If you create a new .PST file, and move the file there, you can then simply delete the .PST file and the contents will get deleted along with it.  To do this, go Control Panel and click “Mail”. In the Mail Setup dialog, click “Data Files”.  Then click “Add…”.  Be sure you note the location where the file is being created.  Give the file a name, then click “OK” and “Close” a couple times.  You can now open Outlook, and copy the message to the new Personal Folders.  When you’re done, navigate to the location where you created the new file and simply delete it.

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