Email is a plaintext communication medium whose communication paths are partly protected by TLS (TLS). For people who depend on the confidentiality of digital communication, this may not be enough. Powerful attackers such as nation state agencies can still evesdrop even if Emails are being sent over TLS. To address this, OpenPGP offers end-to-end encryption specifically for sensitive communication in view of these powerful attackers. S/MIME is an alternative standard for email end-to-end encryption that is typically used to secure corporate email communication.
The EFAIL attacks exploit vulnerabilities in the OpenPGP and S/MIME standards to reveal the plaintext of encrypted emails. In a nutshell, EFAIL abuses active content of HTML emails, for example externally loaded images or styles, to exfiltrate plaintext through requested URLs. To create these exfiltration channels, the attacker first needs access to the encrypted emails, for example, by eavesdropping on network traffic, compromising email accounts, email servers, backup systems or client computers. The emails could even have been collected years ago.
The attacker changes an encrypted email in a particular way and sends this changed encrypted email to the victim. The victim's email client decrypts the email and loads any external content, thus exfiltrating the plaintext to the attacker.