Email has served organizations of all sizes well for over 50 years, providing a convenient way to exchange information and share files from virtually any device, regardless of its operating system and processing power.
However, email comes from a different era. When Ray Tomlinson sent the first email message in 1971, nobody was concerned about email security because most people who used the technology knew one another. Today, it’s estimated that there are around 4.5 billion users worldwide, and they use email to send and receive all kinds of sensitive data that must be protected from falling into the wrong hands.
More specifically, it’s paramount to ensure that email messages can’t be intercepted and read while traveling from one device to another over the public internet or stolen while stored on a computer or server. This important goal can be accomplished with email encryption and taking advantage of it is a key to preventing costly data breaches.
6 Critical Cybersecurity Policies Every Organization Must Have
Understanding the Consequences of Inadequate Email Encryption
In their most basic form, email messages are sent as plain text in an unencrypted form over the public internet. That’s like having an important business meeting right in the middle of a busy train station, with hundreds and thousands of people passing by and potentially hearing each and every word you say.
That’s not ideal when discussing even fairly trivial topics, and it’s downright unacceptable when sharing customer information, HIPAA-protected health records, internal documents, and other sensitive data. Without encryption, such data can be compromised in the following ways:
- A malicious attacker connected to the same open Wi-Fi network may intercept plain text email messages in transit and read them without any limitations.
- The device on which sent and received email messages are stored, such as a smartphone or laptop, may get stolen. Unless the emails are stored in an encrypted form, there’s nothing stopping the thief from accessing them.
- Your email service provider may experience a cybersecurity incident that gives the attacker the ability to remotely download all unencrypted email messages and extract valuable information from them. The extracted information can then be used to conduct phishing attacks or sold on the dark web.
As you can see, inadequate email encryption greatly increases the chances of a data breach occurring and causing long-lasting damage to the entire organization.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the global shift to hybrid work has only amplified the risk organizations face when they neglect email encryption because more employees than ever before now send and receive email messages from various remote locations using their personal devices.
Data breaches are also becoming more expensive. The annual Cost of a Data Breach report released by IBM Security states that 2021 has the highest average cost in 17 years. To not become part of this bleak statistic, organizations must upgrade their email encryption for today’s threat landscape.
How to Encrypt Business Emails to Prevent a Data Breach
For business email encryption to be effective, it must encrypt emails both during transmission and at rest, on email servers and employee devices.
- Transport-level encryption: The most commonly used method for encrypting emails during transmission is called TLS (Transport Layer Security). This form of email encryption takes place between individual email servers, and it effectively secures email messages as they travel across the public internet from potential “man-in-the-middle” attacks. The good news is that TLS is enabled by default by all major email providers. The bad news is that transport-level encryption doesn’t secure email messages before they leave their place of origin and after they reach their destination.
- At rest encryption: As we’ve explained earlier in this article, attackers can get their hands on email messages not only during transmission but also when they’re simply stored at the endpoints. That’s why it’s necessary to also encrypt emails at rest, which can be done using an end-to-end email encryption protocol like S/MIME (Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions). This protocol relies on digital certificates to ensure that only the intended recipient can open and read the message, providing true end-to-end encryption. S/MIME is widely supported by major email providers.
Because email encryption can effectively prevent data breaches only when it doesn’t negatively affect email usability to such an extent that end-users would rather avoid using it entirely, different email service providers offer their own email encryption options.
For example, the encryption options in Microsoft 365 include Office 365 Message Encryption (OME), which makes it possible for any organization to easily send encrypted emails to people inside or outside of its network, regardless of the destination email address. This encryption option even lets recipients who don’t have a Microsoft 365 subscription send encrypted replies, making it great for sending all kinds of sensitive business information.
We Can Encrypt Business Emails to Prevent a Data Breach
If you would like to learn more about email encryption and solutions like OME, then don’t hesitate to contact us at OSIbeyond to schedule a meeting. We’ll work with you to review your existing email security and upgrade it so that you’re ready for today’s cybersecurity challenges.