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How to send an encrypted email to a classic mailbox?


classic mailbox

Even if we regularly praise the good sides of the use of encrypted emails, we must admit that it is not so simple for everyone. Not all your contacts will necessarily want to look into the use of OpenPGP keys or change email providers just to be able to communicate securely with you. Secure email services have been of the same opinion and have implemented alternative methods to send a secure message to a recipient who uses a classic mailbox. We explain everything to you.

Why encrypt your emails?

When you send an email from a regular mailbox, it is encrypted during transit to reduce the possibility of a third party intercepting the message during transport. However, your email provider and that of your contact can still access the content and metadata of your communications. Google in particular abused it at one time: the company was known to scan the emails received in order to offer personalized advertisements based on their content. If the company claims not to do it since 2017, your emails continue to be scanned by your mailboxes to make certain features work.

Since these services fully manage how messages are stored and the form in which they are stored, they have the full ability to provide all of your information if requested by authorities. Edward Snowden's revelations taught us, among other things, that the NSA could happily use the contact lists of various email providers and collect the private data of Google and Yahoo users by intercepting data transfers between the companies' servers. While they have made a security effort since then, using such services continues to be a risk to your security and privacy.

How encryption works

The majority of secure email services use OpenPGP keys for email encryption. These keys are generated as a pair: a public key and a private key. The public key is to be widely distributed to its contacts: it is the one that will be used by your interlocutors to encrypt the messages intended for you and verify the signature of your emails. The private key, on the other hand, must absolutely remain confidential. It is it that will be used to decrypt the messages you receive and also to sign the messages you send. It is protected by a password, which it will be necessary not to lose: if you forget it, you will no longer be able to access your private key, and it will be lost. For more details, you can consult our article on how encrypted mailboxes work.

What if my interlocutor doesn't have a public key?

Even if your interlocutor does not have a public key, it is still possible to protect your communications. Generally, it goes through two possible mechanisms and in some cases cumulative: encryption by password and the expiration of emails. Password encryption is a so-called symmetric encryption: the same data is used to encrypt and decrypt content. It is therefore advisable to share the password preferably verbally or on a secure channel, such as encrypted instant messaging. As for the expiration of emails, they will become inaccessible after a defined time and / or their content will be deleted.


For sending secure emails to users who do not use PGP, Protonmail offers to use a password, which will be the data that will encrypt the message. To do this, simply compose your email in an ordinary way and click on the padlock icon at the bottom left before sending. The service will ask you to enter a password, of the size of your choice, and will offer to include a hint for the recipient. By clicking on the three dots to the right of the padlock, you can set a message expiration time. It can range from one hour to 28 days and 11 p.m., and will be active from the time the message is sent and not from its consultation by the recipient.

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