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Email encryption: What, why, and how-to

Steffany Brown
Oct 27, 2019 · 4 min read

Encryption refers to the process of making a message unreadable to anybody who does not have the key to decipher it. Think of sending secret messages to your friends using codes that you made up as kids. Well, data encryption is simply a highly advanced form of this old trick. Email encryption is a type of data encryption where only the person who has the key can decode and read the email you send.

You can use encryption to protect your messages from being stolen by hackers, governments, and service providers. Many people make the argument that they need not worry about security measures like encryption because they “have nothing to hide.” Unfortunately, we all have more to hide than most realize. Even regular day-to-day email exchanges can contain personal information that bad actors can use to help steal your identity or stage ransom attacks. Governments and service providers can usurp email communication in manners that have debatable ethical implications. Regardless of your opinions about privacy and digital security, you should utilize some form of email encryption in your digital communications.

Here is how I went about the process…

The first thing I did when searching for an encrypted email was to check if DuckDuckGo offers an email service. Sadly, it does not. However, they do provide a short list of recommended encrypted email providers, which includes Neomailbox, RiseUp, and ProtonMail.

Upon first inspection, Neomailbox looked like a potentially good choice, although the $49.95 annual fee was questionable. With a little more research, however, I discovered that many once-happy users have been experiencing service and payment issues over the past year or so. It appears that the service is no longer being maintained so I highly recommend avoiding Neomailbox.

Next, I considered RiseUp, which I’ve heard a lot about. After checking it out a bit, I decided its services weren’t right for my desire to simply obtain an email account quickly.

I landed on ProtonMail. I found some good reviews while researching the service and liked that the basic account is free and includes 150 messages per day and 500 MB of storage. I easily set up an account and logged in. The user interface feels very familiar to other email services I’ve used in the past, so it was intuitive for me to navigate the site. They also offer mobile apps that are similarly easy to use. There are even custom themes available online, so you need not compromise cuteness!

The neat part:

When you’re writing an email in ProtonMail, you have the option to encrypt the message with a password that the recipient must provide in order to read the contents. This might seem pretty impractical at first, but there are a couple simple ways to manage encryption passwords. One would be to use the password hint option in order to give your recipient a clue that only someone who should be reading the email would know. Maybe where you two first met, your favorite shared saying, etc. Another option is to devise a secret system for creating unique passwords that you provide to people when you give them your email address. For example, when I give out my email, I might also write down a password comprised of the first two letters of the person’s name combined with my dog’s birth date. This is much less secure than using no consistent system, but still far more secure than using no encryption at all.

Things to note:

Save your password! Because ProtonMail doesn’t save your password (we have to take their word for it), when you reset your password you lose access to all the emails in your account that were associated with your old password.

Overall, for those just starting to consider encrypted email for personal use, I’d recommend ProtonMail. Fully encrypted emails require both the sender and the recipient to have a ProtonMail account, but setting up an account requires no software installation. For an encrypted email option that allows you to use almost any email system, checkout PGP.

I will do a post on installing PGP and using it with a popular email service soon.

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Steffany Brown

Written by

Software Engineer // Social justice advocate // Afro-futurist // Dog-mom to Turing 🐶

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Steffany Brown

Written by

Software Engineer // Social justice advocate // Afro-futurist // Dog-mom to Turing 🐶

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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