Gmail Encryption

July. 04, 2020

3:00-4:00AM PST

Modern-day society’s increasing dependence on technology has simultaneously created a growing need for encryption. A crucial tool for industry professionals and everyday individuals alike, encryption -- particularly email encryption -- disguises an email’s contents, making them exclusively legible to the intended recipient. Although this is an extremely important element of email security, it has been historically misconstrued as a matter only to be addressed by hackers, cybersecurity specialists, and the like.

Whether utilized for business or personal purposes, users of Gmail are urged to investigate the ways in which the platform currently secures their information. Although Gmail and the greater G Suite are widely adored for the user-friendly services and convenience which they provide, there are some security pitfalls that users should keep an eye out for. However, Gmail’s native encryption and ample administrative controls can be easily fortified with the help of a third-party email security provider.

Gmail Encryption: How Google Protects Most Messages

Similar to the majority of email providers, the most customary method of encryption implemented by Gmail is TLS (Transport Layer Security). With TLS, the encryption of a sender’s message is reliant on whether or not the intended recipient uses an email provider that supports TLS. In other words, if a recipient’s email server does not offer TLS, a sender’s message will fail to be encrypted. Google provides users with a fair warning when TLS won’t be successful, signifying this failure with a graphic of an open red padlock. In an effort to combat such failures, users of paid G Suite accounts are empowered to prohibit the incoming and outgoing transmission of all emails that cannot be successfully encrypted.

TLS does, in fact, create a strong barrier to entry for all unintended parties while an email is in transit. That being said, TLS does not “guarantee that the message will remain private or available only to the intended recipient once it reaches the destination mail server.”2 And the shortcomings of TLS are what enable Google to access messages linked to users’ accounts, to scan emails for possible phishing attacks or spam, and to provide efficiency-boosting features like Smart Reply. There was even a time when Google inspected messages for the purpose of ad targeting, but this practice came to a halt in June of 2017.

Gmail Encryption: A Next-Level Option

Aside from TLS, Gmail offers users a more advanced encryption option in the form of S/MIME (Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions). However, S/MIME encryption on Gmail is not available to free users. It is only accessible to paid users who subscribe to either G Suite Enterprise or G Suite Education accounts.  And even still, Google requires a G Suite admin to enable S/MIME before users can successfully carry out this protective feature. With Gmail’s S/MIME offering, users’ emails are encrypted with unique keys specific to each user that offer messages protection during the delivery process. Emails encrypted utilizing S/MIME only become legible (or decrypted) when they are received by their intended recipient. 

Although a more advanced encryption option, S/MIME has many of the same drawbacks as TLS. To start, in order for S/MIME to work, both the sender and the recipient must enable this form of encryption. Additionally, S/MIME does not secure messages once they arrive at their planned destination, or server, leaving them accessible to Google itself to scan and scrutinize. It is also important to point out that the successful implementation of S/MIME is far from seamless, as effective encryption is dependent on the prior exchange of each party’s distinct user keys. 

Gmail End-to-End Encryption

Since 2014, Google has often dangled the possibility of end-to-end encryption in front of users. However, the email provider still does not support this encryption method on its own. End-to-end encryption is considered to be the most efficient encryption option, as it “wraps every piece of data in a layer of protection at all times, not just in transit and at rest; it also ensures that only the sender and recipient can view the contents of an email.”1 Thus, end-to-end encryption successfully protects data after it departs the mail platform and beyond. The encrypted data is only decipherable through the use of encryption keys.

On top of this, end-to-end encryption lowers an organization’s risk of data exposure, in turn, preventing encounters with compliance issues. End-to-end encryption can provide peace of mind for businesses, ensuring full compliance with data security industry standards, as well as governmental regulations pertaining to data security like HIPAA, GDPR, and FERPA. But since Google does not offer end-to-end encryption services, Gmail users can implement end-to-end encryption with the help of third-party add-ons. And this can serve the user’s best interests. Such third-party services can help to keep user data protected, offering a unique storage location for encryption keys, and thus keeping them autonomous from the sensitive data. This prevents email providers from accessing valuable user content without the user’s knowledge.

Gmail Confidential

In an effort to supplement its TLS offering, Gmail introduced its “Confidential Mode” feature in 2018. This feature empowers users to control who forwards, copies, downloads, or prints the content that they send. Confidential mode also enables users to activate expiration dates on their messages, making the contents of a given email inaccessible after a specified point in time. Using confidential mode, Gmail users may also generate passcodes that are transmitted via text message or email, that intended recipients will be required to input in order to open the message.

As thorough as this feature may sound, it still misses the mark. Lacking end-to-end encryption and not preventing users from capturing screenshots, confidential mode providers users with very little added data security. Moreover, “expired messages” maintain their presence in the user’s sent folder following their expiration dates. Google itself has conceded to the lack of data security fortification provided by the feature, stating that it is “more about simply discouraging people from accidentally sharing sensitive info where they shouldn't.”2 

Where Gmail Encryption Falls Short

Although the likelihood of emails being exposed while utilizing Gmail’s encryption options is not extremely high, there is undoubtedly a risk that messages can travel through servers that are compromised by hackers or malicious actors -- even when both the sender and recipient have enabled TLS. In instances in which the intended recipient’s email provider does not support TLS or TLS is simply not activated, messages will either fail to be encrypted or fail to be sent entirely. And as much as Google’s “Confidential Mode” is a step in the right direction, it lacks aspects that actually improve upon data security. 

Overall, Gmail’s encryption offers senders and G Suite admins with restricted visibility, failing to make considerations for such issues as compliance and interception by third-party or malicious actors. Moreover, Google does not effectively offer any added encryption to sensitive email data. While a sender’s recipients may be prevented from forwarding specific emails, they can still maintain full control over them -- with potential to download or relocate them off of Gmail. Generally, Gmail’s network is a secure one, but the protection of user data is heavily reliant on its proper configuration within and beyond the network. Without this, data may fail to be encrypted, and thus, become comprised.

Implement Encryption with a Third-Party Provider

In order to most effectively and efficiently eliminate risks, users are encouraged to implement advanced encryption methods with a third-party provider. Working with a third-party add-on that offers robust, data-focused encryption services can help businesses in virtually every industry to achieve absolute email security. Moreover, third-party providers work to guarantee that user content remains inaccessible to all unintended viewers -- hackers, malicious actors, Google, and the third-party provider itself included. Due to Google’s automatic native encryption, such providers can offer user-friendly compatibility, seamlessly integrating with Gmail. 

Users are urged to seek out providers that easily encrypt emails with the click-of-a-button, regardless of the intended recipient’s encryption status. And the best third-party encryption services operate as quickly installable browser add-ons, while simultaneously confronting the limitations of TLS. 

Trustifi’s Solution

With NSA-grade end-to-end email encryption, Trustifi is a third-party email security provider that offers comprehensive protection for all emails -- outgoing and incoming. As an add-on extension, Trustifi masterfully incorporates itself with Gmail to offer users top-notch data protection and provides users with increased visibility. Furthermore, Trustifi supplies clients with secure mobile relay, enabling complete protection on any device where emails are sent and received. 

100% compliant with regulations like HIPAA/HITECH, PII, GDPR, FSA, FINRA, LGPD, CCPA, etc., Trustifi ensures the security of users’ utmost sensitive data. Trustifi also provides clients with real-time status updates, signaling users on whether or not each email has been properly received, accessed, and read. And by enabling users to recall, block, modify and set expiration dates on emails that have already been sent or received, Trustifi offers users strong and extensive data management and administrative control options, expertly eclipsing those provided by Gmail’s “Confidential Mode.” Moreover, in an effort to expand upon their data loss prevention approach, Trustifi equips clients with automatic two-factor authentication, which requires recipients to verify their identity prior to accessing received emails. And in working to prevent and protect against threats, Trustifi quickly alerts users of any detected spoofing, phishing, or fraud attempt, as well as any detected malware or ransomware.

All in all, users’ best bet for holistic email encryption is to look beyond Google. By seamlessly integrating Trustifi with one's Gmail account, users receive unparalleled, cloud-base versatility.

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