Paranoid Email: End-to-End Encryption Primer

February 17, 2023
Written by
SendGrid Team
Opinions expressed by Twilio contributors are their own
Reviewed by
Nathalia Velez Ryan
Opinions expressed by Twilio contributors are their own

Paranoid Email: End-to-End Encryption Primer

Over the past decade, Twilio SendGrid has embraced Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption to protect outbound emails as these travel between servers.

In a digital world rife with cyberattacks, implementing true end-to-end email encryption for sensitive emails has become increasingly necessary.

But what exactly does this mean? This post provides an overview of what end-to-end encryption is and the types of surveillance it protects.

Bulk vs. targeted surveillance

Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) with TLS protects data in motion. So when you submit an email to SendGrid using TLS, we encrypt it as it travels from your mail server to our mail servers. We then attempt to send it to your recipients over a TLS-encrypted connection. If their mail server supports TLS, we’ll send an encrypted version of your email, ensuring that passive surveillance devices will only see ciphertext.

This method is effective against passive bulk surveillance techniques—like the National Security Agency tap at AT&T’s backbone facility. However, a determined attacker who has the technical means could perform a targeted man-in-the-middle attack on the TLS connection. With their own certificate and key, the hacker can decrypt the ciphertext and capture the content before reencrypting it and forwarding it to the legitimate destination server. As cyberattackers continue to evolve their methods, it’s crucial to develop solutions that counter their more aggressive approaches—whether through Java-encrypted email or other techniques. 

End-to-end email encryption

To defeat active attacks against SSL and TLS, users can implement end-to-end or data-at-rest email encryption using languages like PHP or Java. 

Public key encryption, a form of data-at-rest encryption, has been around since the 1990s. The first successful implementation was Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), created by Philip R. Zimmermann back in 1991. 

PGP was the focal point of the crypto wars (that’s short for encryption, not cryptocurrency). At one point, Zimmermann famously published the source code as a hardback book via MIT press and distributed it under First Amendment protections. However, PGP never really saw commercial success, perhaps because the technology was too hard to use. The GNU Privacy Guard (GPG) is an alternative to PGP available under General Public License.

Another type of end-to-end encryption is Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIME), a standard for public key encryption developed in 2004. S/MIME leverages X.509 certificates instead of PGP keys. While relatively obscure, popular mail clients like Outlook, Mail App, and Thunderbird have supported it for years—as long as you have the right third-party plugins installed. Apple has also supported S/MIME encrypted email on iPhones/iPads since 2012, with the release of iOS 5.

One major critique of S/MIME is that its security model depends on trusting public certificate authorities, which have suffered serious compromises that undermine the whole system. In fact, the public key infrastructure (PKI) on which the entire internet depends is only as strong as its weakest link. Although this topic may go beyond the scope of this blog post, it’s crucial to note your browser depends on the public PKI. So for most people, S/MIME and publicly trusted certificates should provide reasonable security. 

If you believe that you're subject to targeted surveillance and need end-to-end email encryption, you can still realistically use S/MIME with self-signed certificates. However, you should verify the certificate fingerprints for the parties you communicate with out of band, just like you would verify PGP key fingerprints.

Read more about the different types of encryption in our email encryption FAQ.

Google and end-to-end encryption

It’s crucial to note that despite adding sections to its Transparency Report to address email security concerns, Google doesn’t offer true end-to-end email encryption. Google’s TLS encryption ensures that no one’s looking at your email en route from point A to point B. However, it doesn’t guarantee that the message will remain private once it reaches the destination server. In fact, Google scans your inbox to power its smart features and flag suspected spam. 

Additionally, Google only supports S/MIME encryption if the sender and receiver use paid Google Workspace Suite accounts and exchange security keys during initial configuration. While Google has talked about end-to-end encryption since 2014, it has made little progress. Currently, the only way to get that level of protection is to rely upon third-party service providers to bridge the gap.

Send secure emails with Twilio SendGrid

Now that you know a bit about PGP/GPG and S/MIME, which one would you choose? As we mentioned above, Outlook, Thunderbird, Mail App, and iPhone/iPad have native support for S/MIME. 

To learn more about securing your outbound emails, check out How to Send a Secure Email for Access and Delivery. Then, when you’re ready to start sending secure emails, try Twilio SendGrid for free.

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