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The Most Important Email Security Protocols

Several necessary email security protocols upgrade email security solutions. This article will go over protocols such as STARTTLS, SSL/TLS, Sender Policy Framework (SPF), IRM, and end-to-end encryption.


End-to-end encryption

End-to-end encryption is a popular method for securing email communications. With end-to-end encryption, only the sender and recipient can read the messages, preventing unauthorized access. With end-to-end encryption, private keys match only one another so that no one can read or modify your messages. In addition, when end-to-end encryption is enabled, your email provider can't intercept any messages sent through their network.

End-to-end encryption is the most secure and effective form of email security. Messages sent and received via end-to-end encryption are completely unreadable by anyone other than the recipient and sender. Even those privileged with private keys aren't able to read the content. It means that you should only use email services that offer end-to-end encryption.

SSL/TLS

SSL/TLS, short for Secure Sockets Layer, is a cryptographic protocol that secures email communications. It uses asymmetric encryption to keep the contents of the email messages private and tamper-resistant while in transit. Using encryption to protect email communication prevents the tampering of the message during transit and provides a mechanism for the sender and recipient to authenticate each other. Without encryption, emails are vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, where the message is copied and altered silently while in transit.

SSL/TLS works by initiating a secure handshake with the email server. This handshake determines the version of the SSL/TLS protocol used and the level of communication encryption used. Once these parameters are set, the two servers and email client establish a secure connection. However, it is not required that all email transactions be encrypted. Emails that do not have an encrypted connection are not sent.

STARTTLS

STARTTLS is a standard encryption protocol that upgrades plain-text communications to encrypted connections. It protects not only the email content but also the path the email takes. Currently, only the Air Force uses this security protocol, while the Army, Navy, and Defense Security Services don't. Interestingly, the Department of Education, General Services Administration, and Department of Homeland Security appear to support STARTTLS fully, and there are no apparent weaknesses with the protocol.

SSL/TLS was not developed until after IMAP, POP, and SMTP had been widely adopted. Adding proper encryption to these protocols was challenging, and port numbers varied. Eventually, two ports were required for each protocol, making them a waste of bandwidth. Now, most services use one port for secure connections, and the rest use the second port for non-secure connections.

Sender Policy Framework (SPF)

SPF allows senders to specify a list of authorized email servers. It can also be used in reputation systems to ensure that recipient email servers do not flag emails. To implement SPF, domains, and hosts should add SPF records to their DNS. For example, a domain with an A record should have an SPF record, while a host that doesn't have an MX record should have a TXT record indicating the email domain.

SPF helps ensure the authenticity of emails by telling receiving SMTP servers which domains are authorized to send emails to that domain. It also hardens DNS servers, which convert web addresses into IP addresses, to prevent domain spoofing. The Sender Policy Framework (SPF) protocol comprises three parts: a policy frame, an authentication mechanism, and specialized headers.

IRM

The importance of IRM is well known; it can prevent data breaches and protect files from misuse. This protocol is increasingly important as cyber attacks grow in volume and sophistication. New techniques make detecting and threatening even the savviest targets harder. In the first half of 2020, Microsoft reports that cyberattack volumes increased by 35%. This increase is especially alarming considering the amount of personal and sensitive information sent and received via email.

The IRM protocols are useful for preventing phishing emails, as the content can't be easily read without a decryption key. In addition, spammers often mask their domains in their attempts to phish users or hack systems. The SPF has three core elements: authentication, specialized email header, and encryption. Each element plays an important role in email security.

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