E-mail encryption sounds complicated, but in reality it is a fairly simple process with the right solution provided. When an e-mail is encrypted, the text of the message is scrambled using a pre-determined key. This is an important concept in data security. When the key is combined with the scrambled or encrypted message, the original message is revealed. As long as you and your recipient both have the same key, you can send and receive e-mail to/from each other and be able to read it. Anyone who does not have the key will only see the scrambled message. This is the basic idea but there is more to know:
Basic E-Mail Encryption
PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) is an application that encrypts messages. You can use PGP or OpenPGP to scramble messages from nearly any e-mail client. You can also use a system like gpg4o from Giegerich & Partner GmbH if you use OpenPGP and Outlook 2010 or Outlook 2013 and OpenPGP. The gpg4o system is compatible with most newer versions of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Outlook 2010 and 2013. PGP is considered the gold standard of online encryption. It is not the only system, but it is certainly the most popular with almost two thirds of the worldwide encrypted mailvolume.
Before you encrypt your first message, you will need to create a set of keys. One is your public key. The other is your private key. You give your public key to anyone you want to send you encrypted e-mail. You keep your private key to yourself. The private key is password-protected and will be necessary for you to de-crypt (unscramble) any message encrypted with your public key. Think of your public key as a signature that says “this message is only for you.”
Do not, under any circumstances, distribute your private key. It will compromise your e-mail security. Also be aware that PGP keys can be distributed to mobile devices as well as PCs.
Getting Other Users Keys
Most OpenPGP implementations like gpg4o or the PGP successor Symantec encryption have a facility for you to import public keys from others. This allows you to encrypt messages for them. You also have the option of importing private keys in the event you are moving data from one computer to another.
There are two different kinds of character sets you may encounter when using OpenPGP. The most common is UTF-8. UTF-8 corresponds to the first 128 characters of the Unicode character set, which is backwards compatible with ASCII. Generally, plain text on most standard e-mail clients is encoded using the UTF-8 character set. Nowadays, almost all operating systems make that character set available as a default. If you get an encrypted message with an odd character set, you may have problems decrypting it. Make sure the sender is encoding the message properly before encrypting it for best results.
Data security is always a challenge. Standards like OpenPGP make some kinds of security easier, provided you know how to use them and why they work. Getting the theory behind a particular technology right is just as important as using it properly. If you do the homework, you’ll find the benefits are almost always worth the effort.