What is encrypted email?

| 27th Sep 2021

In simple terms, email encryption protects your information by obscuring it in transit. That scrambled data means only the sender and receiver can see the content. This protection can prevent someone from hijacking the email, guard against email spoofing, and stops unauthorised recipients from acting, such as forwarding the email.

In 2019, $3.5 billion was lost to cybercrime worldwide, with over $300 million attributed to email spoofing alone. This statistic shows the importance of encrypting your emails. Adding this level of security allows you to secure sensitive data and prevent a breach effectively.

What should be encrypted?

There are several things you should encrypt, including:

  • The connection from your email provider
  • The emails you send
  • Any stored messages

Our 2021 Data Loss Prevention report showed that more people than ever are relying on email for communication. Unsurprisingly, use across all digital channels has been on the rise since the pandemic began. There’s been an increase in the use of both video-calling (up 75%) and messaging apps, such as WhatsApp (up 52%). Email still comes out on top, though, with 85% of respondents sending more emails than before.

With this rise in email use, encryption is more important than ever for keeping sensitive information safe. 

How does it work?

End-to-end encryption renders messages completely unreadable while in transit. This feature means only the sender and recipient can read shared messages. You can achieve this using a public key infrastructure (PKI). In most cases, this uses a public key and a private key. 

The sender would use the public key to encrypt their email, while the intended recipient would use a private key to decrypt the message. That means only someone with the correct unique private key would be able to read the email.

>Benefits of email encryption for businesses

There are many benefits email encryption can bring to a business, including:

  • Privacy: Encryption keeps sensitive data, intellectual property, and personal information private.
  • Compliance: Many data protection regulations require encryption, while GDPR strongly recommends it. To remain compliant, you must prove that your data is not at risk — email encryption helps protect that information.
  • Authentication: Encryption can help employees recognise an authentic sender. It protects against email spoofing and phishing scams.
  • Trust: A business that properly looks after its data will be trusted more by customers, employees, and other stakeholders. 

The risks encryption mitigates

Email encryption helps mitigate several risks for a business. Not only will it help protect against a data breach, but it’s a requirement of many data protection laws, too.

Data loss

Data loss can happen in many ways. An employee might send an email containing sensitive information to the wrong person, or an email could be intercepted in transit. Look for email security tools that use both encryption and contextual machine learning to protect against this kind of loss. 

Intelligent machine learning software will read the context of an email to prevent data breaches — such as an employee attaching the wrong file, selecting the wrong recipient, or failing to use BCC. On the other hand, email encryption software ensures that all messages sent are unreadable in transit. These tools work together to keep information safe and prevent data loss.

Malicious data stealing

Without encryption, an email is vulnerable to attack during transit. Both end-to-end encryption and transport layer security (TLS) can make it much harder for hackers to access the email.

With proper encryption, only the sender and intended recipient can read a message’s data. That means if an attacker intercepts an email, they won’t be able to decipher the sensitive information contained within.

Compliance issues

With secure encryption, you know you’re complying with relevant data protection regulations. Not only are you protecting email content, intellectual property, and private information, but you won’t fall foul of global data protection laws. 

Protecting your emails and data from malicious intent and human error requires the right technology. Tools that offer encryption and authentication will make it more difficult for hackers to gain access to business information. It’s also important to support your employees with contextual machine learning tools that prevent an email from being sent in error. Together, this software will protect your business from data loss while keeping you compliant.

Found this article useful? Check out our knowledge hub for everything else you need to know about email encryption.


What happens when I encrypt an email?

When you encrypt an email, it’s converted from readable plain text into a scrambled message that can only be read with a private key. That means only the sender and intended recipient can read the content.

How do I know if my email is encrypted?

Typically, email providers that use end-to-end encryption will show a padlock symbol while the email is being composed. However, many standard providers do not offer this. 

What is the difference between secure email and encrypted email?

All encrypted email is secure, but not all secure email is encrypted. Secure email refers to a provider with the first layer of security in place (such as an SSL certificate) but won’t necessarily use end-to-end encryption, which scrambles an email’s actual content.