What is Secure Email?

March 26, 2019

10:00-11:00AM PST

Given the threats facing today’s individuals and organizations, sending and receiving secure email is becoming a necessity. Although the technology supporting the use of secure email may not be new, most people still fail to use secure email as an additional security layer. A variety of products on the market, including Trustifi, have made sending and receiving secure email easier than ever before.

In this article, we’ll outline how you can begin securing your email. If you have ever wondered, “what is secure email?” then this article is for you. We’ll discuss what secure email is, and explore how to secure email in a way that is both easy and intuitive. Traditional methods of sending and receiving secure email have failed to accommodate the need for a seamless, process. As such, many people simply can’t be bothered to utilize secure email despite the apparent advantages of doing so.

What Does Secure Email Mean?

Any discussion about secure email should first outline exactly what we mean by “secure email.”  The only effective way to truly secure email is by encrypting it. So, when we are talking about “secure email” we are really referring to methods of encrypting emails. The process of encryption is what is actually lending security to any email.

What is Encryption?

In layman’s terms, encryption is the process of scrambling the contents of an email so that they are unreadable. Unscrambling the contents of the email, referred to as decrypting, requires the use of a decryption key.

When discussing encryption, keys fulfill two functions. First, the key is used to gain access to the contents of the email that has been encrypted. Second, keys allow the recipient to authenticate the sender of the encrypted email.

What Are The Advantages of Secure Email?

The core intention behind securing email is to restrict access to the data in the sender’s message content to everyone except the intended recipient. Sure, the main motivator is to keep personal information private, but there are many more crucial reasons to secure an email.

Compliance

Many individuals and organizations have a regulatory requirement to transmit and store sensitive data securely. This often includes things like personally identifiable information (PII) and electronic protected health information (e-PHI). Protecting e-PHI is essential under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which is one example of a regulatory structure that organizations who interact with e-PHI or PHI must comply with. Penalties for non-compliance can be stiff and can include monetary penalties as well as the loss of revenue and reputational harm that can accompany improper handling of sensitive data.

Security

Email can be incredibly vulnerable. This vulnerability exists when email messages are in-transit to the destination, and once it has arrived and is sitting in an inbox. Encryption addresses both of these concerns by limiting access to only individuals that have the correct key to decrypt the message. Even if an email is intercepted in transit, without the right key, access is impossible. This also holds true if an email account has been compromised. If a malicious actor has access to an email but doesn’t have the key to unlock the encryption, the data in the email is still off-limits.

Risk-Management

Cybersecurity today is about recognizing the level of risk that is facing you or your organization and implementing realistic best-practices that minimize that risk to an acceptable level. Utilizing a secure email service is one important aspect of a comprehensive risk-management strategy. Secure email limits access to the sensitive data an email may contain through powerful encryption. When combined with other cybersecurity best practices such as strong passwords and multi-factor authentication, secure email services enhance the overall security posture of an individual or organization.

How Does Secure Email Work?

There are two different types of secure email encryption that are traditionally used to protect sensitive information. The first of these, public-key encryption, relies on two sets of keys that both the sender and recipient must have. The second, symmetric-key encryption, utilizes a single shared key that both the sender and recipient have access to.

Public-Key Encryption

Public-key encryption is the most common type of encryption available for the highest email clients. Public-key encryption can be a bit challenging to set up for first-time users. How it works is an individual or business that wants to send a secure email needs to find the public key of the recipient. Often, this is provided by the recipient or can be looked up. Once they have the intended recipient’s public key they can encrypt the email. The sender will also need to include a digital signature, sometimes referred to as a digital certificate. Digital signatures are provided by a Certificate Authority. This digital certificate or signature is required for the recipient to actually open, or decrypt, the secured email.

Once the email is sent, the recipient must verify the identity of the sender by comparing their public key with the private key they already received. This is done through hashes, which are a short series of numbers. If the recipient wants to reply to the email, they’ll have to get a digital signature or certificate of their own and repeat the process that the sender just completed.

In sum, the process of sending a secure email to a specific email address through a standard mail client can be tedious at best. The most difficult aspect of this transaction is ensuring that each party involved has the private key of the other party. Also, remember that this only works between the two individuals or entities that have both the necessary private and public key.

Symmetric-Key Encryption

The process for sending and receiving emails secured with symmetric-key encryption is more simple, yet suffers from some of the same inherent problems that plague public-key encryption. Essentially, symmetric-key encryption utilizes a single key. This key is used to both encrypt and decrypt the email or attachment. So, to send an encrypted email in this fashion you would send the key to your intended recipient. Then, you would encrypt the email and send it to that recipient. The recipient would use the key they had received to decrypt the email. If they wanted to reply to that email they could then use the same key to encrypt their own reply.

Sending Secure Email With Trustifi

Sending a secure email with Trustifi addresses many of the shortcomings associated with sending a secure email via the other processes we have outlined above. In both public-key encryption and symmetric-key encryption, the key required to unlock the encrypted message must be shared ahead of time with the recipient. While this can work fine if you are sending messages to a single individual, it quickly becomes a burden when sending to multiple people. You’ll have to each share the appropriate key to unlock the encrypted email before you can communicate.

Trustifi simplifies the process by using multi-factor authentication to verify the identity of the recipient. Remember, with public-key encryption the identity of the sender is authenticated through a combination of public and private keys. With Trustifi, a simple 2-factor authentication process is completed. Additionally, only the sender needs to use Trustifi. Recipients don’t have to have it installed to access encrypted emails.

Trustifi integrates with your email platform of choice, that way you don’t have to sign up with a new email provider. You compose your email as you normally would, include any attachments you want to send, and then click the Trustifi tab to select your security and delivery confirmation options. In order to complete the 2-factor authentication process, you’ll have to include your recipient’s phone number, or share with them the authentication code beforehand. After that, all you have to do is send your email and Trustifi automatically encrypts the email and any attachments with AES 256-bit encryption.

For the recipient, opening an encrypted email sent through Trustifi couldn’t be easier. Upon opening the email the recipient will be brought to a page where they must complete the two-factor authentication process. Upon completing this process, whether through a pre-arranged code or by entering a code they received on their mobile phone, the recipient has access to the encrypted email. If they want to reply, they can simply reply within the same window and Trustifi will automatically encrypt the reply.

Closing Thoughts

Sending and receiving secure emails doesn’t have to be so difficult. While traditional methods may be taxing and cumbersome, there are other more progressive ways that allow you to send secure mail in an easier fashion. With Trustifi you can simply encrypt the message and send it. Validation of the recipient occurs through two-factor authentication. The system also allows the recipient to reply with an encrypted email directly from the same window, even if they don’t have Trustifi installed.

If you are looking for an effective way to boost email security of your electronic correspondence through your web browser, try Trustifi today.

Sources

  1. Orman, Hilarie. “Introduction: What Is Secure Email?” In Encrypted Email: The History and Technology of Message Privacy, edited by Hilarie Orman, 1–7. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-21344-6_1.
  2. Orman, Hilarie. “How Does Secure Email Work?” In Encrypted Email: The History and Technology of Message Privacy, edited by Hilarie Orman, 33–57. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-21344-6_3.
  3. https://www.comparitech.com/blog/vpn-privacy/how-to-encrypt-email/

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