It's been some time since email arrived on the scene and revolutionized communication across the globe. Since the 1970s, humankind went from distributing faxes and sorting through piles of mail to near-real-time electronic communications. Now, virtually every business and household worldwide relies on email.
And with that reliance comes a dependency to maintain the security and integrity of their communications. This is where email encryption comes in.
Email encryption is the process and method of disguising the content of email communications to protect potentially sensitive information and ensure only the intended recipients have access. The term refers to encryption of the email itself, the encryption of data stores that house emails, and the encryption of the communications channels used to send and receive emails.
Email encryption has plenty of benefits for a business – here are the five key ones.
1. Improving confidentiality
Emails often contain sensitive information like credit card numbers, bank account numbers, proprietary company data, and PII (personally identifiable information) such as names and social security numbers. Email encryption can prevent this information from falling into the hands of cybercriminals and nefarious actors. Some examples of personal data threat actors target include:
- Application forms for loans, rental agreements, employment, and more
- Photographs if your smartphone has a default setting to embed location information
- Tax return documents, including 1099s, tax returns, and W2s
2. Avoiding compromised accounts and identity theft
If a user's email address becomes compromised, it can cause chaos and potential financial and reputational damages. Encryption can mitigate the impact of a compromised account as long as encryption keys and digital signatures remain protected. That means, if an attacker accesses your information, they'll only see scrambled data.
It's important to note that these breaches aren't uncommon. In 2020, a hacker exposed 280 million Microsoft email addresses in a single attack.
3. Helping compliance and governance
Many highly regulated industries have guidelines requiring encryption in certain email communications. At a minimum, individuals can minimize compliance risk by using encryption to transmit PII and personal health information (PHI). Even if encryption isn't an explicit requirement, encrypting PII can reduce exposure to litigation, penalties, and damages in the event of a cyberattack.
Examples of industries and regulatory bodies that enforce email encryption include:
- HIPAA protects patient information through a robust series of regulations that includes the encryption of PHI both in transit and at rest.
- The DoD requires the use of email encryption and digital signatures on any potentially sensitive communications.
- Financial services like banks and insurers have a legal obligation to protect consumer information and use encryption and secure portals to maintain compliance.
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4. Boosting business efficiency
Many managers overlook how encrypted email can improve their business. The most common example is in securing communications with customers. Some of the most private and sensitive information is required to conduct business transactions with customers. It might include social security numbers, employer information, or a home address.
Using encrypted email provides a viable alternative to requiring all customers to communicate exclusively through secure information systems and web portals. The convenience of email is critical in the early stages of customer acquisition, as using an organization’s portal to create an account might be a turn-off.
The comfort and personal touch of communicating directly with customers while still having a written record via email can reduce churn and improve sales outcomes.
5. Reducing the attack surface across the enterprise
Email is the launch platform for many cyberattacks. While many security teams rightfully focus their efforts on lowering phishing attacks targeting employees through email, even legitimate email traffic is a significant risk factor. That's because organizations store their email traffic on SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) servers, and backup copies can persist for years.
The information stored in these emails presents a tremendous risk in breaching confidentiality, exposing proprietary information, and may lead to a compliance failure in many industries. By encrypting all email traffic, a would-be attacker's job becomes extremely time-consuming and tedious even if they've compromised the email server because they must decrypt each email one by one.
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What are the benefits of email encryption?
Email encryption helps ensure messages remain confidential and reduces the risk of identity theft and compromised accounts. In addition, it's a crucial factor in maintaining compliance in regulated industries and provides an easy, secure way to communicate with customers.
How is email encryption done?
There are two common approaches to email encryption—end-to-end email encryption and encryption of emails in transit. Encrypting in transit relies on a secure transmission protocol like TLS (Transport Layer Security) to provide a secure tunnel for emails to traverse from sender to recipient. This methodology secures against man-in-the-middle attacks where a cyber attacker gains access to email traffic while in transit.
How does an email encryption key work?
Most email encryption implementations use public key infrastructure, also known as PKI, which works by:
- the sender encrypting messages using a public key
- the receiver using a private key to decrypt a message