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Technology Trends: Email Encryption
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Technology Trends: Email Encryption - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Email Encryption

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Email Encryption

Email encryption is not new. The Open Source standard, GPG, has its origins in the early Nineties, but this past year, the wave of stories of government agencies keeping an eye on things has many people who wish to keep their emails private reconsidering encryption methods that ensure intended recipients are the only ones who can read the contents of a message. There are many legitimate reasons for valuing this privacy (trade secrets and sensitive data, for example), so nothing about this article should be interpreted as anything but above board, and even if your organization doesn’t pass around sensitive information, simply knowing that its communication is secure can be worth the effort.

This is a huge simplification, but when you send an email through the usual pipes that make up the Internet, it passes through a lot of computers on its way to its recipient, which means there are a lot of opportunities for someone to take a look at it. This might not sound like a problem, but the world is full of people who use their computers for mischief. They can be inconvenient at best and completely destructive at worst. If you’re already invested in virus protection, email privacy protection might be a logical next step.

There are several encryption types and methods, but the heart of encryption is basically the same as those primitive codes you created with your friends when you were a kid: starting with the plaintext message, you applied some kind of math to the language (A=1, B=2), then delivered the message to someone who knew the “key” and could apply it to the encoded message. This way, the receiver would first see “10-1-13-5-19,” but with the key, he or she would decode its original “JAMES.”

Email encryption is not quite that simple, but it works similarly. If, when you encoded the original message, you also encoded the “A=1 B=2” key, the recipient would first have to decode the key, then apply the key to the message. A system of public keys and private keys ensures that only the intended recipient can read the email. Anyone else trying to read its contents would see only gibberish like iEYEARECAAYFAlSrkq0ACgkQz+jy50P8pxc28QCfRFxdIFzj96oLgOtRUmlEfz5VytgAn19yMulDjW8ZB4YgvjVftq2SBtr9=dSvT.

When it works correctly, without glitches (and it doesn’t always do that; the software can sometimes be tricky to use), neither sender nor receiver notices a thing. The encoding and decoding happen after the message is typed and before it’s displayed to the receiver. But the encryption is sophisticated enough that it can be applied to a message which is even posted in a public space, and only the intended receiver would be able to read it. This was recently done on a high-profile website to send a message to a certain, notorious, high-profile news figure. The encryption can also be applied to just about any other kind of digitized data, including files stored on servers (to protect data in case of unauthorized entry) and even live instant messaging.

With this simplified explanation of encryption, you’re now familiar with the basic concept and machination behind encrypting email (and other data). As with many concepts put into practice, there’s a bit more to it than this, but now you should have some idea whether or not a more detailed exploration is right for you. There are proprietary and Open Source applications that handle your encryption, and some mail readers are designed to intercede on your behalf to send your data with encryption or to receive it encrypted and decrypt it for you. The Open Source standard is GnuPG (or GPG), and it’s a good place to start. Because it is Open Source, the code is available to everyone, making vulnerabilities or errors identifiable by all stakeholders, which means it is less susceptible to breaches.

Keep in mind that nothing is truly 100% safe. Enough computing power would be able to break your encryption, but for the resources it would take, someone would have to really, really want to see what your emails are about. For the average user just avoiding nosey snoops, good encryption is easy to attain and virtually impossible to violate.


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