How Safe Are Your Emails? Email Security Explained

Sending an email seems like an easy process. Just enter an email address, type out your message, and hit send. Boom. Your email client delivers the message to the intended recipient. 

Pretty simple, right? Most email users don’t understand the intricacies involved, nor do they need to.

The only problem is they don’t realize the vulnerabilities involved, either. 

Read on to learn more about email security and some of the steps you can take to protect your privacy during communication.

How Does Email Work?

At its core, email is a communication channel with a Sender, Message, and a Recipient. The technicalities come forth when you look deeper into the mechanics of sending electronic mail.

Sending an Email

If you’ve ever sent an email, you must’ve used either an email client (e.g. Outlook) or a web-based application (e.g. Gmail, Yahoo, etc.) to compose and deliver your message. These programs are called Mail Transfer Agents (MTAs). 

The clients use the so-called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) to handle their messages between sending and receiving servers.

To put it simply, when you hit “Send,” SMTP takes your message and places it on the Recipient’s server. Easy, right? Not so fast…

Before SMTP can do that, it has to consult the Recipient’s Domain Name System (DNS) for a few bits of information. 

First of all, the SMTP locates the Recipient’s IP address, then checks the Mail Exchange record (MX) to verify that the domain exists. If everything is in place, the email reaches the Recipient’s server. If something goes wrong (say, the sender misspelled the email address), the electronic letter bounces back.

Receiving an Email

Once the message is on the Recipient’s server, SMTP ends its mission, giving way to another protocol between the receiving server and the Recipient’s MTA. There are a few of them that handle this side of things, including Internet Access Message Protocol (IMAP) and POP3.

POP stands for Post Office Protocol. It’s a program that only gives access to a specific server where you have to save the message. You don’t need to be online to access it. 

While POP was the initial mechanism for retrieving emails, the development of the internet and people owning various devices “killed” its functionality. With POP3 you can only access your emails from a fixed location.

In contrast, IMAP gives you the opportunity to sync your email on all your devices and clients.

A similar series of checks happen on this side. The recipient’s server:

  1. Asks who sent the message (AKA domain check)
  2. Verifies the Sender’s email address
  3. Envelopes the letter
  4. Sends it to the Receiver’s email client

As you can see, there are a lot of steps behind a seemingly straightforward process of sending and receiving an email. Taking into account that emails boil down to text, it becomes clear why each of these actions need external protection. 

Let’s dive deeper into email security and why it’s so important.

What is Email Security?

Even though most of us use email every day, every message is valuable to cybercriminals. So, knowing how to send documents securely via email is essential. In fact, securing any kind of email is fundamental to preventing hackers from using them.

Even if your emails don’t contain sensitive data, or in your opinion, are irrelevant to other people, they can still expose your identity. Cybercriminals can use the data they gather to identify and target you in the future. Every message gives them enough information to carry out other cybercrimes.

Types of Email Security Threats

Poor email security can expose sensitive information to various types of threats. These types of attacks can fall into two categories: in-transit and inbox threats.

In-Transit Threats

These happen while the message is still being sent. These are called man-in-the-middle attacks, where third parties monitor or alter the movement of data between the Sender and the Recipient.

These third parties then use the information to create a fake email that mimics the original one. As a result, sensitive information gets into the wrong hands, emails are held hostage through ransomware, malware is downloaded, etc.

Inbox Threats

Inbox threats are usually sent in the form of phishing emails: fraudulent emails that lure victims into disclosing their data. So, it’s crucial to always know which email attachments are generally safe to open.

Another form of an inbox threat is spam that tricks people into downloading rogue files or malware to take over the victim’s computer. These types of emails are typically used for fraudulent activities.

Many other threat types exist, but the ones we just described are the most widespread. Cyber threats also evolve over time, making it increasingly challenging for individuals and organizations to keep up with cyber threat actors.

Security Via Email Encryption

Email encryption is the first security layer for your emails. These include establishing Transport Layer Security (TLS) and implementing end-to-end encryption. 

The TLS is a cryptographic protocol – a pipe, if you will, that carries data over the internet. It’s designed to prevent unauthorized access to the stored data from one server to another.

End-to-end encryption occurs on the endpoints of the communication –  on the server of the Sender and the Recipient. 

The message’s encryption key is used to prevent unauthorized access to the content of the email. For example, if intercepted, the message would have a random string of letters and numbers. The intended Recipient is the only one with a private key to decrypt the Sender’s encrypted message.  

If you want to protect your email messages from unauthorized access, we highly recommend using an email client with end-to-end encryption.

Email Security for Individuals

There are plenty of threats out there, but there are also many ways to protect yourself. Still, there’s no one-click option. None of the solutions below can protect you fully when implemented alone. 

Get a VPN

One of the most effective ways to keep your communications secure is using a Virtual Private Network or a VPN. It protects your internet traffic and routes it to a remote server. Many excellent free and paid choices provide a secure, fast, and reliable service. They feature high-level encryption and are designed to keep your traffic secure while still delivering a high-speed connection.

Create Custom Filters

Creating custom spam filters for your email application helps prevent most emails containing malicious content from arriving in your inbox. However, you should continuously update relevant keywords to these filters because cybercriminals often come up with new schemes.

Use Antivirus Software

An antivirus program mitigates unauthorized access to your private information. It can detect and prevent phishing attacks, viruses, and other harmful threats. In addition, these security programs can safeguard your email. They usually feature various protection tools to help keep your inbox secure, such as an antivirus engine, email encryption, and system optimization tools.

Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication is a process that combines login credentials with external information obtained from another source. For example, a hardware token, a push notification, or a form of biometric scan (fingerprint or iris scan). It used to be a security option in banking apps and other important software, but now, most simple user accounts offer two-factor authentication.

Limit Forwarding

Technically, you can forward any email. Still, it’s crucial to think before doing so. The original email might contain information not intended for the person you’re forwarding it to. For example, company communications often include back and forth about assets, financial information, and other sensitive data. Sure, mistakes happen, but being cautious about forwarding is another layer of security each user can implement.

Email Security for Business

Not only should business owners take measures to strengthen their email security, but they should also implement security practices that safeguard the privacy of their employees and customers. As the head of an organization, there are many steps you can take to prevent cyber threats.

Employee Phishing Exercises

Having the right people on board is the first defense against phishing attacks. In addition, having employees trained to identify phishing emails is essential to keeping everyone on top of the security game. Top companies not only organize training workshops but also give their employees hands-on exercises to practice.

Multi-Factor Authentication

Not enough is always enough to let hackers in. Weak passwords and poor security hygiene are often sufficient to expose email users to an even greater level of risk. Multi-factor authentication is essentially similar to the two-factor one, but it contains more steps to prevent unauthorized access.

DMARC Enforcement

DMARC is an email authentication protocol that businesses can use to prevent domain spoofing and phishing. Cybercriminals often impersonate domains to trick victims into clicking on phishing emails. These domains are also used to impersonate the email addresses of targeted businesses.

Implementing DMARC for organizations helps enhance the company’s reputation and increase trust. Once you have the protocol in place, even if it’s set on “none,” you start paving the way towards a better email environment.

Final Thoughts

If you’re still asking: “How safe are your emails?” there’s a short answer. Your email is as safe as you make it. On their own, emails are extremely vulnerable because of their structure. They’re simple texts with no security overlay; hence, they can be a fantastic carrier of malicious data for cybercriminals.

Protection methods, including encryption, verification, and source alignment can go as far as you take them. So the floor is yours.

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