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How Email Data Encryption Works (and Why Your Business Needs It)


Lauryn Cash
Lauryn Cash

Knowing how to prevent malware is essential. Read on to learn more about how to keep your business safe.

How Email Data Encryption Works (and Why Your Business Needs It)

Around the world, an ever-growing number of Internet users send and receive more than 330 billion emails every day. While billions of these emails are marketing messages or simple exchanges, billions more are invoices, receipts, and contracts containing sensitive personal or company information.

When these emails are encrypted (“scrambled” with a key to ensure only the sender and the recipient can view its contents) that private information is safe. However, data encryption within email is nowhere near universal adoption; many businesses still don’t encrypt their email communications.

Sending emails without encryption leaves you vulnerable to sensitive data loss—as well as the resulting fines and loss of consumer trust. As such, every business should encrypt its email communications.

That said, it is important to understand technology before implementing. Today we’ll take you through the ins and outs of email data encryption.

How Email Data Encryption Works

In short, email encryption protects the contents of your email message throughout its journey. This knowledge is essential to contextualize the email encryption process.

From Point A to Point B: How Emails are Sent

When you type an email and hit send, it reaches the recipient’s inbox almost immediately. This split-second delivery time makes it seem like your emails go non-stop from Point A to Point B.

But the reality is more complicated. Here’s what happens behind the scenes:

[object Object]0. As soon as you send an email, it goes to an outgoing email server. This server typically uses the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). SMTP is a set of “rules” that helps the mail server determine where your email needs to go. [object Object]1. Your server then does a Domain Name Server (DNS) record check to translate the recipient’s email address into an IP address. Without an IP address, the server wouldn’t know where to deliver your mail. [object Object]2. From here, your email goes to your recipient’s Message Transfer Agent (MTA) server. The MTA uses one of two separate protocols—either Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) or Post Office Protocol (POP)—to deliver the email to your recipient’s inbox.

Throughout this entire process, if your email is not encrypted, anyone could theoretically intercept it and look through its contents. That’s why email data encryption is so vital for businesses.

The Email Encryption Process

So, how does email encryption work? Essentially, when you send an encrypted email, you tell a mathematical algorithm to scramble the contents of your email into an undecipherable code. The algorithm uses an encryption key—a lengthy string of characters—to make your email and its attachments incomprehensible.

When the encrypted message reaches its recipient, they use a private encryption key to unscramble (decrypt) the email back into plain text. Because the intended recipient is the only one with the key, only the intended recipient can read the email.

This process is known as end-to-end encryption (E2EE). Messages are encrypted as soon as they leave your inbox and stay encrypted until your recipient receives it.

However, when it comes to email encryption, most major email providers (such as Google and Microsoft) encrypt emails while they’re in transit using a process called Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption.

TLS encrypts messages during their time in the email servers, but it doesn’t keep the contents encrypted after it lands in the recipient’s inbox. Additionally, if your email client uses TLS but your recipient’s provider doesn’t, the message is only encrypted for part of its journey. As such, end-to-end encryption is the preferred choice.

Is Email Encryption Safe?

Unfortunately, email is not a particularly secure method of communication on its own, making unencrypted emails relatively easy for malicious actors to intercept.

But email encryption is safe—and that’s the primary reason businesses must adapt it. Data encryption across email ensures that no one (not even your email provider) can read your message while in transit.

Ultimately, email data encryption is a key component of email data loss prevention (DLP). While DLP incorporates strategies and techniques businesses use to keep sensitive data safe, email DLP specifically attempts to stop data loss caused by email transmission.

The Benefits of Email Data Encryption for Security Teams

Email data encryption keeps the contents of your emails out of the hands of unauthorized recipients. However, if you still need convincing, here are several benefits of encrypting your organization’s email communications.

Keeping Sensitive Information Safe

Whenever possible, email should not be used to transmit confidential information. However, sometimes it’s inevitable. Email data encryption allows you to respond to these situations and ensure that no one can access your (or your customer’s) sensitive data, such as:

  • PII (Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, passport numbers, etc.)
  • PCI (consumer payment and account information)
  • PHI (personal health information, medical record numbers, test results, etc.)
  • Trade secrets

Avoiding Security Breaches

Many people think of email as a method of communication, but it’s more than that. Email accounts also act as the key to other accounts. For example, if you request a password reset, you often receive an email from the service with a reset link. If someone were to gain access to that email, they could reset your password and lock you out of an important account.

Additionally, an attacker could use an unsecured email to install malware on a computer in your network. Encryption helps provide substantial protection against these issues.

Complying with Regulations

Recently enacted privacy regulations—such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)—advise businesses to encrypt their emails. While these pieces of legislation don’t explicitly require organizations to use end-to-end encryption, they strongly recommend it.

And even if encryption isn’t part of GDPR or CCPA compliance, general data loss is. Failure to secure a customer’s data can result in massive fines. So, encrypting emails isn’t just recommended in certain jurisdictions or industries—it’s also good business.

Establishing Customer Trust

These days, privacy is more important than ever. Customers want to know that they can trust your business with their information. 87% of consumers said they wouldn’t do business with a company if they were unsure about its security practices.

Trust, once lost, is not easily regained. When you encrypt your emails (and tell the world you do), you give your customers peace of mind and enhance your professional reputation

Keep Your Business Emails Safe with Armorblox

Regardless of the industry you do business in, your emails are likely full of employee and customer data. Email encryption can keep that information secure.

At Armorblox, we’re no strangers to email security. We protect sensitive organization and individual data, ensuring that private data stays private. Armorblox automatically identifies and encrypts sensitive data within emails and attachments to protect businesses from accidental or malicious disclosure of personally identifiable information (PII), personal health information (PHI), or payment card industry data (PCI).

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