How Secure is Email?
Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in 1971, which later earned him a spot at the Guinness World Records. Fast-forward to now and email is the most ubiquitous Internet communication tool. It’s tough to imagine a world without email because of how much we rely on the technology. In fact, many of us have never experienced a time without email. Humanity rarely handwrites correspondences that involve standing in line at the post office anymore. But, how secure is email? Is email secure? This article addresses those questions.
The Problem With Email
When you send an email, it doesn’t just go from your device (or email) to the recipient. Instead, that email travels across multiple servers and networks before reaching its final destination. All of this typically happens within seconds despite the back-end workings being quite complex.
However, those short pauses that happen as your email moves from one server or network to the next, exposes your email messages. Hackers can exploit this vulnerability. For example, a criminal can infiltrate one of these pause points to access and/or copy email information.
Encryption can prevent this from happening but most email providers aren’t encrypted. Companies like Yahoo and Gmail provide standard email encryption by default. Though this is not enough, as you’ll soon discover. Furthermore, your emails are stored on most servers indefinitely. Decade-old email messages that have been deleted can be recovered with the right know-how.
Email Was Never Built With Security in Mind
Is email secure? Well, the truth is that email wasn’t originally designed to be secure. Email technology was a simple store-and-forward communication tool that left information interceptable by anyone. No one thought email would become one of the most used communication tools in the world.
Email communication can be compromised in the following ways.
- The sender’s device – Some email clients encrypt the email that’s stored on your device but most do not. So any program with access to your computer or smartphone can read email content and download attachments.
- The networks and servers it travels across – Connections between you and your email service provider, ISP (Internet Service Provider), and other networks (e.g. Apple) can be exploited. This also includes any connections to the recipient’s network. All of these connections can be used to intercept and steal information.
- The recipient’s device – Anyone with access to the recipient’s device can access email content. Hackers may go after the receiver’s device since it can be easier to infiltrate and secretly access sensitive data.
Hackers Are Not the Only Problem
Hackers aren’t the only threat to your email content. Generally, we trust our email service providers but all it takes is one rogue employee with the right clearance to ruin that trust. Not to mention that your ISP can intercept email messages. Plus depending on where you live, the government can demand that your email service provider provides access to messages.
So How Secure is Email?
The introduction of encryption technology, two-factor authentication, and other security measures has indeed made email a more secure communication tool. However, regular encryption mostly protects email communications as they leave your device, leaving messages open to access as it travels across the web.
Many email service providers offer HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure). This is great and necessary but HTTPS has its limitations. Some modern tools (malicious or otherwise) can intercept HTTPS traffic for inspection. HTTPS also encrypts and decrypts data at each pause point, not just the final endpoint. That means your email is up for grabs if a pause point or server is hacked.
The mail client or software on your device normally supports or allows you to set up SSL/TLS or STARTTLS encryption. Make sure your email addresses are configured using these. However, both encrypt and decrypt at each pause point too. While the aforementioned methods of encryption aren’t perfect, they do a good job of preventing or deterring most attackers.
End-to-End Encryption: The Best For Email Security
End-to-end encryption (E2EE) maintains data encryption until it reaches its destination, unlike the previously discussed encryption methods. In other words, data is encrypted from your end and decrypted only when it reaches the intended recipient. That means neither the servers the email travels across nor unauthorized parties can access the information.
End-to-end encryption is only offered by a handful of specialized email service providers. Even giant email service providers like Yahoo and Gmail don’t yet have end-to-end encryption but recognize its importance. Both organizations are still working towards providing end-to-end encryption.
End-to-end encryption is the most secure way to privately communicate. That’s why Caplinked virtual data rooms are protected with end-to-end encryption, ensuring your information is safe from prying eyes.
How to Check For Email Security
Do you want to know if your current service provider has good email security? If so, you can look for certain things that indicate the presence of email security. Look for the padlock symbol (HTTPS) located right next to the URL or web address when accessing email from a web browser. Your communications are encrypted if the symbol is present. For mail clients or software, access the email address settings and make sure its configured using SSL/TLS or STARTTLS.
The Future of Email
Email isn’t going anywhere because it’s useful and a universally accepted method of communication. We generally don’t think twice about the email messages we send. Enterprises, government agencies, and other organizations rely on email for both internal and external communication. But is email secure?
Somewhat. The fact is email isn’t that secure because servers, networks, and user devices can be breached. A skilled hacker can intercept most regular email communication with relative ease. Thankfully, some email providers and secure communication tools like virtual data rooms have end-to-end encryption.
This is the best way to fully secure email communications and prevent access by unauthorized parties. Don’t expect your email to be safe from prying eyes regardless of the standard security provided by modern email service providers. Best to adopt secure communication services with end-to-end encryption for transmitting sensitive data.