How to Send a Secure Email

By Aaron Zvi

Emails are forever. And they're are also very vulnerable. Because of the ease with which hackers and eavesdroppers can capture the clear text of emails, there's a need to ensure that only the intended participants in a conversation can read the messages. By using mathematics, encryption programs scramble email text in a way that prevents it from being read by anyone but the intended recipient. With their magic under the hood, they work with the click of a mouse button. And you can use them for free.Hushmail is the fastest way to start. PGP has a few more steps, but will also let you encrypt large email attachments.

Things You'll Need

  • Computer
  • Internet connection
  • Free email encryption program (optional—read below)

The Simplest Way: Hushmail

Step 1

Go to hushmail.com and click the "sign up" link at the top right of the page.

Step 2

Choose your new Hushmail username (this will become your secure email address: username@hushmail.com) and complete the sign-up process. Once you sign in with your username, you can send secure messages.

Step 3

Ask the person with whom you want to email securely to set up their own Hushmail address. Once that's done, all emails sent between the two Hushmail addresses will be encrypted every step of the way between whatever two computers you're using.

Step 4

If the person you're emailing doesn't want a Hushmail account, you can send a message to his regular non-Hushmail account.

Step 5

When a Hushmail message is sent to a non-Hushmail recipient, the sender needs to set up a challenge question that the recipient must correctly answer before the email text is displayed. The question should be one that only the intended recipient can answer correctly.

The Classic Way: 'Pretty Good Privacy' (PGP)

Step 1

Download and install the free Thunderbird email program from GetThunderbird.com. (Make sure you enter your correct e-mail server addresses, account name and password during Thunderbird setup.)

Step 2

The free, open-source version of PGP is called "GPG." Depending on your operating system, download and install GPG4Win (for Windows), MacGPG (for Mac) or GnuPG (for Linux).

Step 3

When you run the program for the first time, you'll need to create your certificate, or "key" (the unique random series of characters that determines exactly how your email will be encrypted). Your key has two parts: the private key and the public key.(Don't worry: you won't need to memorize either one.)

Step 4

Put the private key file in a folder on your hard drive, and make at least one backup copy that's kept elsewhere. Guard your private key from being accessed by others. Your private key is the ONLY way you can read files and messages that were encrypted just for you. (Your private key file will be protected by a password you choose.)

Step 5

Share your public key with the people from whom you'd like to receive secure email. You can do this by "publishing" your public key to a keyserver (a searchable online directory of people's public keys), or just sending a copy of your public key to those people with whom you'd like to exchange secure emails.

Step 6

Download and install the Enigmail plugin for Thunderbird, which will help you automate the encryption process.

Tips & Warnings

  • The Hushmail website is ideal when you only need to send occasional secure emails, or will only be exchanging secure emails with other Hushmail users.
  • PGP stands for "Pretty Good Privacy" and is a program that lets you exchange secure emails and files of any size with anybody else who generates a free "public key."
  • GPG is the free version of the commercial PGP program -- it offers the same level of security as the full commercial version of PGP (but without some convenience features that are valuable to businesses).
  • If you decide to use a different encryption program, you can "import" your current private and public keys and continue using them just as before with the same level of security.
  • If you use PGP or GPG, remember: If you lose your private key, or forget the password you chose for it, you'll never be able to open up those files or emails that were encrypted with its corresponding public key.