Why is Email Insecure?
Emails are a widely used medium of communication in the professional world today. However, emails are insecure. Let’s go deep into how it is insecure and what can be done about it.
While this is not to scare you - you have to know it. Every email you send is “Insecure” by default even though your email client or Service Provider may assure you of 100% security.
Well, email is here to stay. It remains, up to this day, the most ubiquitous means of communication between individuals and organizations. Companies prefer Emails even after the widespread acceptance of social media networks and Instant Messengers (IMs). Email is the "Ideal" communication medium for corporations, enterprises, SMEs, and even individuals. Don't you use an email address for all professional communication? Yes, you do.
Today, email apps are embedded everywhere. They are built into mobile devices, computer OSes, gaming consoles, and almost every device out there. In fact, you need to have an email address to be on the internet. Yes, that's because you need an email for many functions. You need an email to sign up for offers, streaming services, deals, giveaways, online registrations, etc.
You need to enter your email address when setting up your iPhone, or your Android device. That's how important email is.
No doubt, email is here to stay, but you should understand that every data or file you share through email is liable to fall to sniffers and hackers. Now, let’s get to the details.
Why is Email Insecure?
There are quite many reasons why we say that email is insecure. Reports have it that people send billions of emails daily. But, a very big percentage of those emails are “Spam.” If you don't believe me, go check out the spam folder of your email account.
Also, it is easy to alter the addresses in an email's "From" and "To" address bars. Hence, scammers try to impersonate reputable individuals and organizations. They send sensitive emails with the intention of gaining access to the "Target" company database or financial records.
According to Help Net Security, most companies suffer data breaches due to email impersonation attacks. Also, the IT Pro Portal clarifies that “Spam Emails” are the commonest way to spread malware, viruses, and malicious URLs.
From different sources, it is clear that email is very much vulnerable and insecure.
Highly-touted email services like Lavabit and Silent Circle have shut down due to email insecurity concerns. Nevertheless, people aren't giving up on using emails. It is the primary - and probably the most reliable - medium for personal and business communications.
Well, some new technologies and algorithms can help email clients to checkmate spam. Here, we have let out the reasons and "facts" why email is an insecure platform for sharing sensitive data.
Email Wasn’t Built With Security In Mind (No Encryption)
As crazy as it seems, this is the truth about email. It launched when the internet wasn't too exposed and versatile as it is at the moment. At first, you could only send emails using a computer. All emails sent were transparent and open. So, anyone could read the content because there was no encryption.
Earlier, emails went through open protocols and methods. Most of those methods are still existing to this date. Today, people can send emails through various devices, networks, and platforms. While many people view it as flexibility - the ability to send and read emails from any device - the real truth is that those devices can be compromised.
How Emails Can Be Altered
There are three places where sniffers can intercept and compromise any email. It is very easy to compromise emails on devices; how?
On the Sender(s) or Recipient(s) device(s)
If someone finds their way to access your PC, smartphone, smartwatch, or tablet, the person can read your emails without restriction. Well, except when you locked your email app with a password or two-factor authentication (2FA) security.
Hence, it is easy for an authorized person to read emails from both the sender's and recipient's devices. More so, when malware gets into a device, one of the things it does is to search for email files and data in the device's local storage - that's where the concern is.
When it comes to networks and servers, it's a bit tougher. A scammer needs to be technically intelligent to understand how to temper emails while on transit to a recipient's device.
For someone to have access to your sent email while it’s still on transit, the person must have access to:
- Your email provider (your ISP, Outlook, Hotmail, Google, Yahoo, etc.).
- Your network connections.
- And the recipient’s network connection with their email provider.
For someone to access your emails when you send to someone using the same email service as you do (e.g. sending email from a Gmail account to another Gmail account), the person only needs to temper with your network connection (as the sender) or that of the recipient's.
Once either of the connections is vulnerable, your email content can fall to the scammer. Similarly, if you're sending to an email address hosted by a different service (a Gmail account to an Outlook account or company account), there are several third-party channels the email needs to go through to get to the recipient.
Most times, those third-party channels are not safe and built with the latest security algorithms. That gives a technical scammer easy access to what's transmitted on the network.
You may be sure that your connection is secure, but what about the connection of the recipient?
Sadly, most servers are vulnerable and easy to penetrate by scammers. Also, some email servers store email messages as “Plain Text." This makes it very easy for anyone who has access to the server to read every detail of an email message.
So to say, most email servers are not end-to-end encrypted, and that's a huge security concern. Well, they leave it unencrypted for advertising purposes. Also, that helps to search for emails - using keywords - easier for the users.
What Can You Do?
Fine, emails are insecure, but are there any better alternatives? One can’t say there are any better alternative communication channels out there.
Yes, IMs like WhatsApp offer end-to-end encryption. This means no other person can read or access the files you send, even if they hack into your network or WhatsApp's servers. But still, many people prefer email for corporate communications. Here are some tips on how to use emails securely:
- Ensure an email service provider uses strong encryption and security technologies. That should be your first lookout before hosting your email with them. Mainly, most email clients and services use Transport Layer Security (TLS). This encryption tech (TLS) is to ensure a secure connection between your device (the email sender) and the service.
- If an email is no longer needed, delete it and also clear it from “Trash.”
- Corporate and business emails should not be active elsewhere. Except on authorized, well-secured devices and systems used within the organization's premises.
- Use end-to-end encrypted channels to send sensitive details and files.
- Only use highly-reputable email services such as Outlook, Gmail, and Yahoo Mail. When setting up an email on your company’s server, ensure to integrate security add-on features. That would help verify incoming and outgoing emails on the server.
Yes, email is not secure by default, but you can manually make it secure for yourself or your company. Not all links sent to your mailbox are genuine. Some are spam links that contain malware and viruses to phish your device.
Actually, it is still impossible to get 100% security with email. But, if you adhere to precautions and integrate security features, you can protect your data - to an extent.
Moreover, if you are just starting out on email and are confused whether you should use your real name or not, read our article to better find out if you should or not.