Why Encrypt Your Email?

Let’s talk for a moment about email.  As an instrument of communication, email allows us to conduct business, catch up with friends, send links, and share information. In the not-too-distant past, postal mail accomplished those same things, albeit more slowly – hence the name “snail mail” in use today.  The variety of communications that travel through postal mail utilize varying degrees of security for their content – from the “wish you were here” of postcards to the lined envelopes that carry checks and personal letters.  Common sense dictates the level of security an individual uses for their postal mail communications, and yet this same common sense is often absent in email communications.

Consider this:  if you don’t encrypt your email, you might as well be writing everything on a postcard and sending it out in the mail, where anyone could read it.

Email encryption might seem like a lot of hype in a digital world that already boasts multiple security levels such as passwords, antivirus software, and firewalls.  But email encryption is the digital equivalent of a lined, sealed envelope as compared to information written on a postcard for anyone to see.

Encrypting your email will keep all but the most dedicated hackers from intercepting and reading your private communications. Using a personal email certificate, you can digitally sign your email so that recipients can verify that it’s really from you as well as encrypt your messages so that only the intended recipients can view it.

Encrypting your email isn’t a guarantee that your messages will never be intercepted, but it makes it much more difficult.

How does encryption work?

In most cases, email encryption works using a technology known as Public Key Infrastructure or PKI). Two keys are involved: a public key and a private key. The Private Key is used by you and you alone. Your public key is public! Everyone else can use it in communicating with you.

If someone wants to send you a private message they simply use your public key to encrypt it. When you first get it, it will be unintelligible. However, you can decrypt it to the original message with your private key!. When you send an email to someone else you can use your private key to digitally “sign” the message so that the recipient can be sure it is from you.

email encryption security

How do I encrypt my email?

It might surprise you to learn that your email service already has encrypting capabilities; all you need to do is activate them.   Search within your email program’s “help” files to learn more.  Or you can download encryption software, if you prefer.

Be aware, however, that most forms of message encryption require a security certificate to be installed on your computer.  This certificate provides both a public and private cryptographic key pair in order to send and receive encrypted messages.  You can apply for a security certificate from any number of companies that offer them online, such as VeriSign, GoDaddy, or Comodo.

Regardless of the other forms of security currently in use in most homes and businesses – antivirus protection, firewalls, credentials with passwords – email encryption remains one of the most important security features that isn’t widely used.  Make no mistake; your email can still be hacked en route between secure points.  Encrypting messages is a way to ensure that the contents remain private, no matter the circumstances.

{photo used under Creative Commons from paulk – flickr}