What is email security?
Email security refers to a range of methods for ensuring confidential information in email communications/accounts remains secure against compromise from unauthorised access. Attackers use emails to entice victims to disclose private information, open unsafe attachments or click hyperlinks that invite malware onto their device.
Email was designed to be open and accessible so that people can communicate with one another freely, which is why it is vulnerable. It is easy for attackers to send malicious emails to anyone they want to exploit due to the lack of security in email. With most organisations relying on email for many business uses, this is a severe problem in the business world.
Email security revolves around encrypting or disguising the content of email communications to prevent sensitive information from being compromised. It also involves security policies within organisations to instruct users on how to handle the flow of information, such as removing executable content from emails or diverting suspicious messages to be analysed in detail.
Whatever email security techniques you deploy, it's essential to keep them in effect at all times. One key aspect of this is ensuring all employees are trained in how email security works and how to spot potentially malicious emails. Your employees are the moving parts of the business, and their decisions impact what happens. If they all have a good understanding of how to avoid email attacks, you underscore your email security tools with a robust code of practice.
What are email security threats?
Email remains an important way for individuals and businesses to communicate with one another. It is excellent for sending instant communications as well as content like documents and other types of files. But it also has several inherent vulnerabilities, and this makes it a popular target for cyber attacks.
Common threats include:
Phishing: This uses cleverly orchestrated tricks to persuade the victim to divulge personal information or unknowingly grant access to sensitive systems.
Malware: Things like viruses, spyware, Trojan horses and worms are often deployed via email, giving attackers control of workstations or entire servers. The attacker then exploits this access to get their hands on sensitive information.
Spam: This can disrupt work productivity and cause emails to be missed. It can even operate as a transport vehicle for malware.
The key to protecting against these vulnerabilities is email security, and we will discuss it in detail in this article. It has never been more important for individuals and organisations to focus on their email security, so take in the information in this article and consider what will be best for you.
Why is email protection necessary?
According to Barracuda, there are 13 types of email-based threats that companies need to protect against for a start—ranging from the most minor, such as spam, malware and URL phishing. To the more complex and challenging to defend against such as brand impersonation, conversation hijacking and account takeover.
According to Statista, following a survey of global MSP's (Managed Security Providers), there were 304 million ransomware attacks (not attempts, attacks) worldwide in 2020, a 62% increase on the year before. Statista goes further to report that 54% of these cyber security attacks originated via email. Twice that of the following cause, which was poor user practices (27%).
With the number of threats increasing, statistics like that make for alarming reading. Email Security is a must for any business. It's not that employees or users are asleep at the wheel or negligent. The issue is that cybercriminals are very clever, and they leverage the weaknesses in businesses to their advantage exceptionally effectively.
Hiscox, the business insurer, estimates that small businesses' average clean-up cost is just shy of £30,000 following a cyber security incident. It's hard to argue that an investment in email security is not as equally significant as the cyber insurance that a company like Hiscox provides.
Email security plays a significant part in protecting employees and users against this attempt to catch them off guard and, in doing so, protects the business. As with any other type of insurance policy, it is not bought in the hope you become a victim. It is bought to prevent you from becoming a victim.
How does email security work?
Email security works by receiving and sending emails through a secure email gateway (SEG). This gateway can be hosted on-site and site within your network or hosted by an emails security service provider in the cloud.
All inbound and outbound email is routed through this email security gateway. Different and multiple inspection processes are performed before the email is delivered, rejected/blocked, or quarantined for further user evaluation.
The most common inspection processes and technologies are things like spam and anti-virus filters, matching against known IP and address reputation databases and most recently and futuristically artificial intelligence technology.
Emails Security platforms make wide use of SPF, DKIM and DMARC protocols to know whether to accept or reject mail, however, these protocols will only help with known threats.
DMARC – Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance is a policy that authenticates email. These policies are broadcast through the Domain Name System, which is public and means that anyone can add DMARC to help prevent their email domain from being hijacked or spoofed.
DMARC is an extension of the commonly used SPF (Sender Policy Framework) and DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Message) protocols. However, these protocols are nearly 20 years old (DKIM was introduced in 2004 and SPF in 2000).
Common standard technologies such as spam, anti-virus, and IP/address filters respond to known threats. AI technology is now being used with some vendors to address what are referred to as Zero-Day Threats. Zero-Day Threats are attacks that have not been seen before nor have no known IP or address reputation footprint. Tools such as sandboxing and behavioural inspection can ensure that email traffic that falls outside of familiar routes and protocols, (e.g. the FD asking the Payroll Manager to transfer money somewhere when this has never been a request before) is safeguarded. Sandboxing this email has the aim of catching threats that bypass standard anti-virus and spam based inspections.
Depending on the type of email security you use, it works by either preventing recipients from ever seeing malicious emails or ensuring outbound emails cannot be intercepted. An organisation, or an individual, can be compromised either by unwittingly inviting malware into their system or by disclosing sensitive information. Email security works to prevent these things from happening.
Email gateways, or spam filters, are algorithm-based and operate on a massive database of content that helps them distinguish spam content from essential emails. It is a sophisticated solution that can recognise both marketing emails and those containing questionable content, diverting them away from your primary inbox to decrease the likelihood of looking at them.
However, as there is some margin for error in spam filters, those emails are not deleted. Users can look at them in a separate inbox to check whether there is anything relevant to them. So antivirus software can be an excellent tool for deepening the protection offered by email gateways.
With those filtered emails still accessible, there remains a risk that the user is fooled by a phishing email. The antivirus software scans the content of all emails and compares it to known threats and malware to identify anything that could be harmful. The malicious content is then removed so that the user never clicks on it, and all that remains among the filtered emails is marketing emails.
Email encryption uses advanced cryptography algorithms to disguise the content of an email at the point of sending it. That content can only be decrypted by the designated recipient, meaning anyone who intercepts it in the interim will not be able to interpret the information contained. The sophistication of encryption makes it virtually impossible for a hacker to access the email content, so this is a powerful tool for avoiding information leaks.
It's essential to bear in mind that email security has its limitations. Regarding security gates and antivirus protection, the software can only detect suspicious content based on known, recognised threats. When hackers create something entirely new, it can slip through undetected. This is why an understanding of how to spot questionable content is vital to your employees. Please give them the knowledge they need, and you further strengthen your protection against email threats.
More about email threats
Email security covers many protections, all of which aim to screen out email threats before they arrive in a user's inbox or from being broadcast outside of your organisation.
Most commonly, users will recognise features such as Virus and Spam filters/protection. Still, with email being the number one source for instigating a cyber-attack, comprehensive email security needs to cover so much more.
Anti-Phishing protection is a must-have. Phishing is a process where the attacker has the sole purpose of stealing personal or highly sensitive data, such as financial details or details that could allow them to impersonate you or your company.
Email phishing is by far the most common. It is often delivered using a blanket/mass blast approach, which leads the recipient to an exact copy of a well-known or familiar website, where the details you input end up in their database for later use.
Spear phishing is a much more targeted approach, where specific targets (e.g. a Financial Controller or Payroll Administrator) are explicitly targeted in order to attempt to have funds paid outside of the organisation.
Regardless of what type of phishing is employed (Email, Spear, Whaling, Clone etc.), a well-engineered email security platform should have robust Anti-Phishing policies that can defend against a whole range of attacks.
Typosquatting detection and link protection are also high on the desirable list for Email Security. Typosquatting is where cybercriminals customise an email template in the brand of a well-known organisation, like your bank or email provider or favourite social media site. Hackers then insert a link that will launch malware if clicked or take you to a site where the hacker can capture sensitive details. An example of this might be www.faecbook.com . Anyone in a hurry or busy and not paying full attention may well miss that the 'e' and 'c' are reversed and click the link. By then, it's too late, the ransomware is deployed, and it's just a matter of time before the call comes with the ransom demand.
Link Protection is undoubtedly a feature of email security that can help. Any link within an email, whether this is from a trusted source or not, can then be scanned and even opened in a sandbox environment where the resultant actions can be launched in a contained environment that will not impact a live network. The sandbox ensures that any links within emails are from known or trusted sources, and if not, they are removed from harms way before being followed.
Filtering & encryption
Outbound email filtering and outbound email encryption are also used with a respected email security solution to ensure that any trojans, viruses, or malware made into a given network are not broadcast from your company email. Filtering and encryption prevent first and foremost, your company from being responsible for taking down a customer or supplier, which may cause irreparable harm to your stakeholders and your business reputation.
A business can employ extra protection for highly sensitive data (e.g. email emanating from board-level user accounts). An email security service could also encrypt email data so that emails that may be intercepted would be complicated, if not impossible, to decode.
What are the different types of email protection?
Email security tools and services provide a range of powerful ways of protecting email communications. The most common are as follows:
1. Spam Filters
Marketing emails are flying around 24/7 throughout the year. These can clog your inbox and cause you to miss critical communications. Moreover, attackers often disguise phishing scams as marketing emails, driving an unsuspecting recipient to click a malicious link. The consequences can be severe.
Spam filters (or secure email gateways) help separate marketing and phishing emails by diverting them to a different inbox. Spam filters keep your regular inbox clear, so no critical communications go unnoticed, and you can schedule automatic deletion of spam emails so they never need to be opened.
2. Email encryption
Email data is at its most vulnerable when in transit, as it is sent in an open format that can be intercepted. The solution is to use email encryption to ensure your outgoing emails are fully encrypted, making it impossible for a hacker who intercepts them to interpret the information. These cryptography features also protect things like the recipient's details and emails message headers.
Email encryption makes it virtually impossible for a hacker to compromise the content of an outgoing email. It should be a part of all computer networks to protect communications and effectively avoid falling victim to phishing scams.
3. Antivirus Software
Though spam filters take malicious emails away from your inbox, those emails will remain in your inbox for some time. The fact that the spam remains in your inbox means there is a chance of the email still being accessed and damage being done.
Email attachments and malicious hyperlinks in emails are where malware originates. As soon as a recipient clicks on these things, the virus could be unleashed on their system. Robust antivirus protection can prevent this from happening by scanning all incoming and outgoing emails for malicious content. Anything suspicious is blocked or quarantined, adding another layer to the work of your secure email gateways.
4. Content Control
Hackers use email to perform phishing scams, sending attachments in the form of files, links or images. Malicious software originates through images on many occasions, so email security systems also need to scan all images. In the modern age, it has become an essential aspect of email security.
How can I improve my email security?
Companies can improve email security with the tools and techniques listed in this article, whether you are an individual or a business. Email security gateways, antivirus software and content control are all tools for protecting against threats in inbound emails. Encryption is a solution for protecting your outbound emails against being intercepted and compromised. Both are equally important, so your best bet is to make use of everything at your disposal.
Most email platforms have their secure email gateways built into them now. Secure gateways offer sufficient protection against phishing for many people, particularly if users have a good eye for spotting suspicious emails. However, there can be limitations to an email platform's built-in solutions, and a purpose-built security solution can address these limitations. Likewise, with antivirus software - most individuals and organisations will have some antivirus software on their network, but it is a generic solution that is not explicitly focused on email.
Furthermore, the most popular email services do not offer end-to-end encryption. Outbound emails are stored in clear text, making them readable by third parties like email providers and hackers. Most individuals and organisations do not want prying eyes accessing their email communications, mainly if sensitive information is contained within them. By installing email encryption software in your systems, you can ensure no outbound communications are vulnerable to being compromised in this way, allowing you to communicate via email with peace of mind.
If your email platform already has a spam filter and you are already paying for antivirus software, you could consider just getting email encryption software installed. Encryption would offer wide-reaching email security, which you could strengthen by training your employees in best practices when using email. However, your email security would be disparate, and it would not represent the most robust collective solution available to you.
If you want maximum protection, you could deploy a single email security solution that covers everything you need in a single package.
Barracuda Email Security
Barracuda Email Security provides complete email protection with a multi-layered defence. It unites all the aspects above, comprising an AI-powered gateway defence, tamper-proof email archiving, advanced fraud detection, security awareness training and incident response in a single, robust platform.
When you run Barracuda on your computer systems, it operates with no impact on your email performance. Users will not experience any disruption to their email communications, but the tool works hard over the Barracuda cloud to offer industry-leading protection designed specifically for email.
With email-borne attacks becoming ever more sophisticated, it's no surprise that up to 91% of targeted cyber-attacks start with an email. Complete email protection requires a layered defence that identifies and stops attacks and keeps email data protected. Barracuda combines numerous award-winning email security tools into a single solution for the most advanced protection on the market.
The damage that is done when data is compromised via email can be astronomical. From extensive downtime to the leaking of sensitive data to costly ransoms, the consequences of poor email security are simply not worth the risk. If you deal with sensitive data, particularly personal details from customers, clients or patients, there is no excuse for not having a robust email security solution in place.
As we have stated, you could rely on your email platform's security gateway, your company's chosen antivirus software and a third-party email encryption solution. Added security, combined with the training of your employees in avoiding phishing scams, would provide you with reasonably strong protection against threats to your email communications. But can you settle for 'fairly strong' in the modern world, with email threats becoming increasingly prominent and sophisticated?
A purpose-built email security solution like Barracuda can provide everything listed in the previous paragraph and more. The security gates, antivirus protection, and email encryption are also more robust and email-focused, with additional tools to supplement and support those core functionalities. And with staff training included in the package, it is the complete solution available to secure you or your organisation against the modern threats that come via email.
Ultimately, the choice is yours. One thing that is beyond doubt is that email security is something that Companies must take very seriously. It is not recommended to ignore email threats, particularly for businesses and other types of organisations. And if you are a large organisation, it is unwise to settle for anything less than maximum security to ensure your data, and that of your employees, customers, clients or patients is never under threat from cyber attackers.