It was the number one advice following the Snowden reveals: encrypt your email. Although VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are great because of their ability to secure your communications through another server in a different location, they can’t provide you with full protection in all areas.
When you use regular email services it is only safe up to a level, as the message you’re sending is regular text, very similar to a postcard. If there are any snooping eyes, they’ll be able to read it with no problems.
So, how does it work?
Email encryption works by creating two mathematically-related cryptography keys: a public one that you share with your recipient and a private key that you should never share. These two keys work in tandem to encrypt and decrypt a message. If I send you an email, for example, I’ll use your public key to encrypt it, and only you can decrypt it with your private key, and vice versa when you send me an email.
Usually, email encryption requires a bit of setup on the user side, with many complicated steps and even the production and control of your own cryptographic keys—something that’s a bit out of hand for most users. But in recent years more user-friendly providers have come on the scene.
These email providers offer you an even greater level of protection when you use it in combination with a VPN service, such as NordVPN, which offers unparalleled encryption and privacy for all your online communications. We’ve mentioned before how to keep safe on public wi-fi, so now we’re going to look at some easy-to-use providers that help secure your privacy when sending emails.
The number one name when it comes to encrypted mail, ProtonMail started in 2013 in the wake of the Edward Snowden document leaks. The provider’s strongest feature is its iron-willed stance against government surveillance, as it is based in Switzerland and thus located outside of US and EU jurisdiction.
Their main datacenter is also buried under 1,000 meters of granite rock with fully-encrypted hard drives, redundant power supply, and other features to help keep your mind at ease.
ProtonMail provides users with two passwords: one for logging in, and the other for your mailbox. The first password provides authentication and entry into the mail system, and the second provides decryption of the secure mailbox.
The entire process takes place in the user’s web browser, which means that ProtonMail has no way to decrypt user messages, even under court order. It also offers end-to-end encryption for recipients outside of the ProtonMail system. The service is free and offers additional paid services.
Usually spoken of in the same vein as ProtonMail, though a bit older, Tutanota started in 2011 in Germany and offers 1GB of free storage with additional paid services. The service also offers end-to-end encryption, but they are perhaps most notable for not using the almost-ubiquitous PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption. They instead use a custom-built solution, arguing that PGP does not encrypt the subject lines of emails. This goes also for non-Tutanota recipients.
The service works by both sender and recipient having agreed to a password beforehand, without which the recipient won’t be able to read anything—including even the subject of the email.
The service has strong data privacy and they are unable to access anything you’re doing. So, because of their levels of privacy and security, they won’t be able to change your password if you lose it. So don’t lose it.
This service is also available for Android and iOS and a plugin for Outlook.
Rounding out our top 3 is RiseUp—a volunteer-run organization more known for its political activism against government surveillance than for its suite of private email, VPN, and other online services. RiseUp is the only non-profit organization on this list. It was started long before the Snowden files, in 1999, and has garnered international recognition as an ally of secure-minded online users, having gained 6 million subscribers by 2013.
Before the Snowden leaks, the organization was more connected with the environment, human rights, and social justice activists worldwide, but was flooded afterwards with a whole generation of privacy-seeking users and activists. This helped grow their numbers and led them to focus more on email security.
RiseUp does not store any logs and all mail is stored on encrypted partitions. Emails are also transmitted over encrypted connections whenever possible. The organization relies on volunteers and donations, so if you end up using their services, you can also consider pitching in.
These are but a few of the encrypted email service providers out there, but they comprise a good cross-section of what’s available. It’s important to be vigilant in your activities online, and using these email encryption services—in combination with a VPN of course—will ensure no one can track you, log you, or intercept your private information.
Are there any other encrypted email service providers you love using, or any that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.