As far as I know, malware can spread with an email message either via an attachment file or a link that a user deliberately opens and via vulnerabilities in the email client in the JavaScript (if enabled) or HTML engine. So considering that the user:

  1. Does not click on any link or opens any attachment in the malicious mail.

  2. Disables JavaScript execution.

  3. Enables plain text mode.

Will this offer a complete protection against e-mail malware? Is this depending on what email client someone is using? (ex. Thunderbird, Evolution). Can vulnerabilities in the email client still be exploited, even in plain text mode?

  • 1
    i don't see any vectors left after those steps are taken. never say never, but "in all likelihood"
    – dandavis
    Mar 27, 2017 at 18:41

3 Answers 3


No not complete protection, it's not enough on its own but it does reduce the number of effective attacks a little.

Take the text-only e-mail reader Mutt as one example. There have been several vulnerabilities which have been documented as CVE's that affect it.




Given the processing is much simpler than trying to do everything required for HTML parsing it is probably harder to attack than an HTML-based client but vulnerabilities still happen.

That said, I would also point out that fewer attackers are targeting Mutt because it has a minority share in the global e-mail client ecosystem. It's possible that if it were more popular more security researchers and attackers would target it and more vulnerabilities may be discovered.

In the case of using an HTML-based client in text-only mode, there is a possibility that you are reducing the attack surface by using text-only mode but it really depends on the specific attack vector. This won't give you 100% protection but in theory, you are reducing your attack surface some.

Finally, almost all of the exploits targeting HTML-based clients are likely to safely be opened in a text-only browser like Mutt but you can never assume this will be 100%. Nothing is 100% secure.


Before HTML and Javascript were even invented, attackers were using ANSI escape codes in email bombs.

Silly: such as turning your terminal into a blinking rainbow of text

Annoying: gunking up the terminal so badly it couldn't be used without a reset

Embarrassing: nobody wants to be that guy in the lab whose VT-100 won't shut up

I don't know that code execution was ever a product, but don't underestimate the damage somebody with a termcap man page can do.


"plain text mode" usually covers only the composition of mails, i.e. means that the user will sent the mail as plain text instead of HTML (with all the formatting). But it has no effect on how received mails are displayed. Even with plain text mode HTML mails are displayed as such including embedded images and attachments are displayed too. So this offers no additional protection.

  • All email clients I've used as well as web clients from gmail, hotmail, etc. all have a "plain text mode" for viewing emails. Most of them if not all also display only the text of an email in "plain text mode". Mar 28, 2017 at 1:49

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