What is Email Security?

Email security definition

Email security is the practice of protecting email communication and accounts from unauthorized activity, account compromise, phishing scams, spam emails, and more. Because email is one of the primary forms of communication for businesses, maintaining a strong email security posture is critical for the continuity of a modern business. Securing your email can be done in several ways including educating yourself or members of an organization on common threats and best practices to prevent cyber attacks.

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Why is email security important?

In addition to being the primary form of communication for most businesses, emails often contain sensitive information such as financial data or customer information. The quantity of emails sent and the contents they contain make email a primary attack path for cyber criminals. 

Cybercriminals are constantly attempting phishing campaigns or using nuanced attacks like social engineering tactics to trick users into giving away valuable information or login credentials. Lack of appropriate training or security measures can lead to compromised email accounts, data breaches, and malware infections.

Many industries have legal and regulatory requirements for data security, such as HIPAA or PCI DSS. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in significant fines and legal penalties. Email security measures can help organizations meet compliance requirements and avoid costly breaches.

Types of email security

Encryption: This is a method of security which ensures that only the intended recipient of an email will be able to read its contents. This is done by converting the contents of an email message into a coded language that can only be deciphered by someone with the encryption key. This way, if the email is intercepted while being sent, the information remains secure.

Digital signatures: This is a cryptographic method to verify the authenticity of a message and its sender. Using a digital signature will ensure the recipient that the message was not tampered with in any way.

Spam filters: Individuals and businesses receive hundreds of spam messages every day. Most email software come equipped with spam filters that can automatically detect and filter out unwanted messages. These messages might contain malicious links, content, or phishing attacks. 

Security awareness training: Most organizations implement security awareness training to keep their employees up to date on the best practices to avoid cyber risk. This involves educating users on how to recognize and avoid phishing attacks, how to create strong passwords, know what information is ok to share with people outside the company, and other practices.

Firewalls: This is a system that protects the network from unwanted traffic. Based on what the organization or security operators have identified as unwanted, the firewall system can stop all traffic that corresponds with these rules.

Two-factor authentication: This requires users to provide two forms of confirmation to access their email accounts. For example, someone might need to login with a password from their laptop and confirm via their phone that they are the ones signing in. This will help prevent account compromise and identify compromised account credentials.

A man presenting data from a laptop to a colleague during a cybersecurity awareness training session.

AI email security

AI Email solutions: Darktrace’s AI email security uses artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to prevent, detect, respond to, and heal from email attacks. Through its unique understanding of you, rather than knowledge of past attacks, Darktrace/Email stops the most sophisticated and evolving email security risks like generative Al attacks, BEC, account takeover, human error, and ransomware.

In a Self-Learning AI model, the AI has the ability to understand the business from the inside out. That way when activity within the business deviates from ‘normal', the AI can identify this behavior and alert the security team. 

AI can also use real-time data to identify and respond to threats quickly, minimizing the potential damage and saving time for security teams who usually have to parse through a high number of flagged emails. 

One of the key benefits of AI email security is that it can detect threats that may go unnoticed by traditional security systems, which often rely on pre-defined rules and patterns to identify threats. With AI, email security can continuously learn and adapt, providing more comprehensive protection against previously unknown email-based attacks.

Is email secure?

Email, by default, is not secure as it can be intercepted or compromised while traveling to a recipient or in the inbox. To send a secure email, you can use encrypted email services or software. Cyber criminals are constantly trying to compromise email accounts, send spam into your inbox, and use phishing as a method to obtain sensitive information. Always be cautious when clicking on links or opening/downloading files from unknown senders.

What does "encrypted email" mean?

Encrypted email refers to the process of encoding the content of an email message to prevent unauthorized access or disclosure. By scrambling the contents of an email message, only the intended audience who have the encryption key can open and read the email.

Organizations often use encrypted emails to communicate within their business because the cost of leaked data is far worse than an encryption service. 

Email encryption has three types. 

  1. Pretty Good Privacy (PGP): This is an email encryption protocol that is specifically designed for email encryption. PGP can be implemented by anyone because it is an open standard, meaning its publicly available and easy to integrate into other software.
  2. Secure Multi-purpose Internet Mail Extension (S/MIME): Like PGP, S/MIME is a meant to secure email content using symmetric and asymmetric encryption. The difference between the two is that S/MIME is typically used in the enterprise setting.
  3. Transport Layer Security (TLS): Different from PGP and S/MIME, TLS is an encryption protocol used to secure network communication. This includes securing web browsing, email, and transferring files. This functions as a way to protect any transfer of data between two end point devices. TLS is regarded as the successor to SSL, together these are two of the most popular encryption protocols available to users and businesses.

How to send a secure email in Outlook

To send a secure email in Outlook, you can use the built-in encryption feature, which requires both the sender and the recipient to have a digital ID. See the instructions here --> Instructions

How to send a secure email in Gmail

To send a secure email in Gmail, you can use the confidential mode feature, which allows you to set an expiration date or revoke access to the email. See instructions here --> Instructions.

How do I know if my email has been hacked?

There are several signs that your email account has been compromised:

  • You do not have access to your email account.
  • You are receiving password reset notifications that you did not submit yourself.
  • People in your contacts are receiving emails you did not send.
  • The account has history of a login from a strange IP address.

Types of email attacks

Phishing: Phishing is the process of sending fraudulent emails, while posing as legitimate sender, to convince people to reveal sensitive information such as passwords, social security numbers, bank account information, and more. 

Spear phishing: is a type of phishing cyber-attack that targets a specific individual or organization rather than a broad audience. This usually involves an attacker conducting a significant amount of research on an organization or individual to make their attack seem more credible by contextualizing their message with relevant personal or corporate information. These attacks usually come in the form of email messages but ‘spear-phishing’ is a more specific way to describe a socially engineered phishing attempt that is targeted. The goal of a spear phishing attack is to gain access to sensitive information such as credentials or compromise valuable data. This can be done purely through solicitation or through further methods of compromise such as embedding malware into a targeted system.

Account takeover: account takeover fraud, or account compromise refers to a cyber-criminal gaining control of a legitimate account. This can happen when a threat actor successfully obtains an individual’s login credentials. Account takeover can be detrimental to business operations at any organization because with a legitimate account, attackers can operate covertly, have a stamp of credibility, and authority depending on who’s account is compromised.

BEC: BEC stands for Business Email Compromise. BEC involves attackers gaining unauthorized access to a company's email account or impersonating a trusted individual for the purpose of carrying out fraudulent actions such as transferring money or obtaining sensitive information through social engineering tactics.

CEO Fraud: CEO fraud is a form of impersonation where a threat actor will falsify their identity, acting as a CEO (or other executive) at an organization and attempt to communicate with other employees, such as members of the finance department. They trick using falsified versions of a high-ranking official’s credentials. These attacks are specifically focused on financial gain and often involve urgent requests for the transfer of money.​ 

Whaling: This is a heavily targeted cyber-attack where the attacker attempts impersonate themselves as a high ranking official. The term whaling references their victim as a “whale” because of their massive influence or high level of importance at an organization.