What is the Difference Between Email Authentication and Email Encryption?

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What is the Difference Between Email Authentication and Email Encryption?
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In an email-based interview between Forbes and Stefan Schiller, a vulnerability researcher at Sonar, the latter raised concerns about how AI-driven phishing attackers can create convincing and personalized emails, fooling victims into revealing confidential personal and financial details. 

Moreover, the 2023 State of Phishing Report by SlashNext unveils a staggering 1,265% surge in phishing emails since the introduction of ChatGPT in November 2022. This alarming spike points towards a paradigm shift in cybercrime dynamics, as the advent of Generative AI ushers in a new era of sophisticated phishing tactics.

These predictions and statistics are enough to drive business owners to step up their email protection game. So, here we are clarifying the difference between email authentication and email encryption– the two technologies to secure email communications from spoofing, phishing, impersonation, BEC attacks, etc. 

Email Authentication

Email authentication is a set of protocols and techniques for confirming the email sender’s identity at the recipient’s end; it’s done to check if the sender is actually who they are claiming to be and not an impersonator. 

These are the 3 most commonly used email authentication protocols

Sender Policy Framework (SPF)

SPF was first proposed in 2003 by Meng Weng Wong, an entrepreneur and technologist, to address the issue of email spoofing and unauthorized use of domain names in email headers. It allows domain owners to enlist all email servers that are authorized to send emails on their and their business’ behalf. This list is published in DNS in the form of a TXT-type SPF record.

SPF record of the sender’s domain is used to verify if the sending server is on the list of authorized servers. If the sending server is not authorized, the recipient’s server may treat the email as suspicious or reject it altogether.

DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM)

DKIM was first talked about in 2004 and was later developed. Its first stable version, DKIM RFC 4871, was published in May 2007. DKIM uses cryptographic signatures to verify the authenticity of the email content and its source. It allows the sender to sign their outgoing emails with a private key, and the recipient can use a public key published in the DNS to verify the signature. 

Based on the verification results, the receiving server can take various actions. If the DKIM signature is valid, it increases the confidence that the email is legitimate. If the signature is invalid or missing, the email might be treated with suspicion, and the recipient’s server may take appropriate actions, such as marking the email as spam or rejecting it.

DomainBased Message Authentication Conformance and Reporting (DMARC)

Introduced in 2012 through collaboration among organizations like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and PayPal, Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) enhances email security. 

It lets domain owners set policies in DNS records, dictating how emails failing SPF or DKIM checks should be handled. Owners can instruct receivers to quarantine or reject unauthenticated emails, preventing malicious content. DMARC also facilitates data collection and reporting, allowing domain owners to receive feedback on email authentication. 

This feature aids organizations in monitoring and adjusting their email security settings for better protection.

Email Encryption

Email encryption protects the information included in an email by restricting access for unintended users. This process typically involves the use of cryptographic techniques to convert the plain text of an email into a scrambled or encrypted format.

The two primary encryption methods are:

Transport Layer Security (TLS)

TLS encrypts the communication route between the sending and receiving email servers to keep the message and data secure in transit. However, there is no end-to-end encryption involved in the process, which gives accessibility through email servers

It operates at the transport layer of the OSI model, making it difficult for attackers to break into the channel to intercept or tamper with messages and data. It’s primarily used in online areas involving financial transactions and email communications.

 TLS has undergone several versions, with the latest being TLS 1.3, which is continually evolving to address security vulnerabilities and enhance the overall protection of online data.

Image sourced from cheapsslsecurity.com

Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIME)

S/MIME is an advanced technique of email encryption that allows senders to digitally sign outgoing emails and encrypt their content. Upon reception, the receiving server decrypts the email and verifies the digital signature. This process involves end-to-end encryption that disables unintended users from intercepting or tampering with messages and data at every stage of transmission.

To begin with the process, you’ll have to generate a pair of public and private keys and obtain a digital certificate from a trusted certificate authority

When composing an email, the sender can use their email client to digitally sign the message with their private key. This signature ensures the recipient that the email has not been tampered with during transit.

If the sender wants to encrypt the email content for privacy, they use the recipient’s public key to encrypt the message. Only the recipient, with their corresponding private key, can decrypt and read the message.

The Comparision 

While email authentication focuses on the legitimacy of the sender and presents email-based cyberattacks, encryption focuses on securing the message to maintain confidentiality and privacy

Both technologies have their own roles and importance in protecting businesses from getting impersonated, and a combination of both is suggested. 

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