5 Reasons for Everyone to Use a Secure Email Provider
Secure email providers provide enhanced security and privacy over more common, not-so-privacy friendly email providers. Secure email providers are also just as user friendly as their non-privacy-friendly counterparts.
Given the decentralized nature of email, users are highly encouraged trying secure email providers for themselves and, where possible, migrate most (if not all) of their email activity to truly secure and private email.
What makes secure, private email providers so great? The privacy and enhanced security that come with secure email providers stems from encryption - and their user privacy-first implementation of it into their service(s).
If you are looking for recommendations instead, refer to the avoidthehack recommended secure email providers page.
1. Secure (and private) end-to-end encrypted inboxes
Truly secure email providers provide inboxes encrypted with zero-access encryption.
Zero-access encryption means no one without the proper private keys has access to a given user's inbox. If we assume that secure email providers do not store your private keys on their servers (which reputable providers should not), they do not have access to your inbox or messages. The servers of the email provider are blind to what's in a user's inbox and to the contents of users' messages.
This is in stark contrast to other email providers, who may engage in active inbox scanning or metadata harvesting for any number of reasons which may include spam-fighting or sharing data with third parties.
Many free and popular email services have direct access to your inbox. While it's highly doubtful any provider actively reads the contents of messages despite having the capability to do so, many privacy-unfriendly email services do scan users' inboxes. Often times an action such as scanning is done under the guise of security - such as phishing prevention or spam prevention. However, even if the security is indeed provided, the data is often collected and stored for an often undisclosed amount of time.
Additionally, data collected from a user's inbox may be used to perform other actions, such as adding a concert event to your web calendar from a ticket receipt or suggesting locations for visiting from a flight confirmation email.
Zero-access encryption naturally lends itself to preserving and promoting the privacy of the end user. Since no one without the appropriate means of access can access users’ inboxes, security is enhanced. A direct effect of this enhanced security is far better privacy as the possibility of any third party gaining access to any given user’s inbox is greatly reduced. No ads, no automatic "suggestions" of locations to visit once receiving an emailed flight confirmation, and no automatic additions to your web calendar from that concert receipt.
Encrypting Contacts and Calendars
Some secure email providers provide encryption of address books/contacts and calendars (if applicable.) Typically, the same level of zero-access encryption provided for inboxes is applied to address books and calendars.
Some encrypted email providers do not provide encryption for contacts. This isn’t necessarily a guaranteed "deal breaker" - depending on a user’s threat model and use needs. For example, there are users who do not use email address book/contact features for email, so a secure email provider not encrypting contacts may not be an area of concern. Others may use this feature and wish for the security and privacy that comes with an encrypted contacts list.
Encrypted email providers may also provide an encrypted calendar alongside their email service. An encrypted calendar (instead of an unencrypted calendar) provides similar privacy levels to an encrypted mailbox.
Assuming zero-access encryption is used, this implementation of encryption in a calendar service helps prevent the provider from 1) knowing/inferring from scheduled events on your calendar and 2) sharing this information with third parties. The events on the calendar would only be visible to you (or anyone with the correct private keys) and unreadable to the server - this prevents unwanted "suggestions" derived from using your calendar as a basis.
2. Secure and end-to-end encrypted email messages
Encryption at secure email providers extends beyond the inbox. Secure email providers generally provide automatic end-to-end encryption when emails are exchanged with other users who also use the same provider.
For emails going to external recipients, secure email providers provide options to secure these messages with a symmetric key, like a preshared password. Specific implementations differ but they’re all intended to maintain the integrity of the message; in most cases, the external recipient will need to know the password before opening the email.
Naturally, in the case of password protected emails, users will want to find a different but secure method for transmitting the password to the recipient to minimize the chances of compromising the integrity of the email message itself.
Many secure email providers also support OpenPGP as a direct integration. OpenPGP is a non-proprietary format used for encrypting or authenticating data, using public key (asymmetric) cryptography. A highly common use case for OpenPGP is, well, email - in fact, it’s the one of the most common standards for encrypted email; many organizations both public (ex: government) and private sign emails with PGP keys.
It’s important to note OpenPGP doesn’t support the encryption of metadata such as the sender and receiver itself - this is a flaw of PGP and not necessarily as implemented by the email provider. Metadata may still be available for "capture" and consequent storage/use by servers.
In any of these cases - end-to-end encrypted messages, password encrypted messages, or messages signed with a PGP key - your messages are unknown to the secure email provider. Going further, your messages remain secure (and therefore, private) from third parties who do not possess the proper decryption keys.
3. Limited data collection
Secure email providers tend to lend themselves to user privacy due to limited data collection practices. Most secure email providers engage in very limited data collection during account creation.
In many cases, anonymous registration is possible with a secure email provider because no data outside of a username and a password is necessary for account registration or service use. Contrast this with other free but not-so-privacy-friendly services, which often require users to provide personal information, such as a mobile phone number, in order to establish an account.
The implementation of encryption like Zero-access or Zero-knowledge encryption, of user data reduces the avenues for data collection by the provider after account creation.
Encrypted inboxes and email messages blind to the server reduce a secure provider’s capability of scanning inboxes and metadata for purposes such as user profiling for advertisers. Additionally, if user contacts and calendars (where applicable) are encrypted with zero-access encryption, then the possible data points for collection are further reduced.
Whatever data collected and isn’t necessarily encrypted with zero-access should still be encrypted and hashed so as to protect the information if leaked in any kind of data breach.
Many secure email providers also have costs associated with them - even the email providers with generous free tiers. Anonymity can be “broken” when using more traditional methods of payment. Some secure email providers offer users the option to pay with more anonymous-friendly methods such as mailed in cash or cryptocurrency.
However, it’s worth mentioning that even if traditional payments are used, this doesn’t automatically mean your privacy is at risk. Highly sensitive threat models may rely on the ability to pay anonymously; it’s reasonable to assume that most users don’t fall into this bucket. Ultimately, payment method availability and what’s acceptable largely depends on a user’s threat model.
4. Better tracking protections
Secure email providers often provide users with tracking protections from incoming and even outgoing email messages.
The common and not-so-privacy-friendly email providers do not provide much, if any, tracking protections. We can probably argue that they support it as long as it isn’t a case of classic maliciousness, such as blatant phishing or classic spam.
Given many popular email service providers do provide comprehensive spam protections via their own filters, which are often derived from collected user (meta)data over considerable amounts of time, this is not the same as providing protections from common tracking mechanisms found in the emails that make it to the inbox.
For example, many email newsletters implement tracking in effort to capture message open rates. Obviously, this isn't solely limited to newsletters - a vast amount of marketing-related emails rely on tracking technology to generate their metrics, to include coupon emails. Naturally, these tracking technologies and methods aren't very conducive for user privacy - they frequently record exactly what time the email was opened and the links contained inside often contain tracking codes.
Common email tracking techniques include tracking pixels, read-receipt tracking, and trackable links embedded into messages received and sometimes sent.
Additionally, email headers can expose a surprising amount of information, such as IP address, server handling names, and the program used to draft/send an email. Secure email providers aim to minimize excessive information sent in email headers, helping to reduce the chances of any unintended sharing of potentially identifying information.
Users may be inclined to think using anything other than Gmail, Outlook.com, or any other popular email provider will introduce needless complication with using, receiving, or sending email. Most often, this is not the case.
Users also have more direct control over their accounts as well - many provides allow account deletion, fine-tuning of spam settings, and the enabling or disabling of any additional settings associated with the email account itself.
However, it is important to note that everyday users of secure email due face some unique challenges. In some cases, users may find that some services may ban certain domains - as is the case with creating a Microsoft account using a Tutanota email address.
This doesn’t necessarily make secure email providers “harder to use,” but rather it should be considered a data point to consider when migrating between email providers.
In the end, there are many positives to switching from a not-so-privacy-friendly email provider to a secure email provider that also respects the privacy of its users. Users are highly encouraged to switch/use a secure, encrypted email provider where feasible.
Secure email providers provide secure inboxes and messaging options, don’t collect personal data from users, and help protect users from common email tracking mechanisms.
Secure email providers also make these features easy to use. Most of the time, users don’t have to go “out of the way” to enable or use more secure and/or private settings. Additionally, many of these privacy/security-enhancing features are enabled by default; if not, they're easily found inside the settings.
With that said, stay safe out there!