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Email Encryption Basics

New to Email Encryption? Learn the fundamentals from our collection of articles for beginners.

Email Encryption Fundamentals

We use email for everything, from scheduling meetings, to confirming doctor’s appointments to catching up with our close friends and family. Yet many of us are not aware how vulnerable our private email conversations are. Encrypting email is the most reliable way to protect your data from unauthorized snooping.

Why Use Email Encryption?
When you send an unencrypted email, your message travels across the open Internet with no protection. Hackers can steal it, government organizations can spy on it, and malicious third parties can intercept and alter it.

When unauthorized actors intercept corporate emails with sensitive personal and financial information, it breaches compliance and betrays customer trust. When they intercept personal emails, it can put you and your family at risk of identity theft and other crimes. Encrypting email keeps your private communications private, ensuring only designated recipients can read them.

What is Encryption? Encryption is a method of protecting emails and other data by turning it into a form unauthorized parties can’t read. Encryption uses a string of characters called a key to scramble data, using a transformation rule called a cipher.

To read the data, users need to decrypt it, either using the same encryption key (in symmetric key encryption) or a different one (in public key encryption). By controlling who has access to the the key, you can prevent unauthorized third parties from reading private email and other data.

How Does Email Encryption Work?
Email encryption uses public-key cryptography. The sender encrypts the message with the recipient’s public key — so-called because the recipient shares it with whoever needs to send them a message. Once the message is encrypted, it can only be decrypted with the recipient’s private key, which is carefully safeguarded. Authentication methods like digital signatures are used to confirm that the message actually comes from the listed sender, and hasn’t been altered in any way.

Encrypting email used to require the sender and recipient to swap private keys ahead of time. The programs were finicky, and required technical knowhow to use properly. Additionally, you’d only be able to correspond with people who used the same encryption method as you.

Modern email encryption programs manage encryption keys for you and verify the identity of your recipient, making the whole process easier and more secure. The best secure email services can even send encrypted messages to users who don’t have the program installed, allowing you to protect all your private emails.