What Is SSL Email?

Deyan G.
Deyan G.

Updated · May 10, 2022

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Living in the digital age has its benefits and its dark sides. Compromised data, breached systems and personal information theft are common occurrences.

This is a significant concern for many people when it comes to email. Bad actors can intercept, read, and tamper with your email - compromising your confidential information.
In this article, I will explain what is SSL email protection, why it is needed, and whether it’s enough?

What Is an SSL Email?

Let's start with the terms. TLS and SSL are commonly referred to as just SSL. You can use the terms more or less interchangeably unless referring to a specific protocol version.

SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer. In short, it's a standard security technology for safeguarding data that transfers between two systems. It prevents hackers from reading and modifying any transmitted information.

TLS stands for Transport Layer Security. It is a more recent, updated version of SSL.

SSL certificates are the standard for protecting websites (HTTPS). And if you have ever received the “Your connection is not private” warning for a website, its means it is missing the certificate. But in addition to this critical role, SSL is also used to secure emails.

Popular email clients like Gmail previously encrypted email with SSL but now use TLS.

What Is a Secure Email, and Why Do You Need It?

Email is essentially a plaintext communication sent from mail clients to a receiving server.  Its limitations leave message content exposed to interception while in transit. Email is often susceptible to such when connected to public hotspots or even with your IP. Spyware is an additional threat to your emails.  

Email certificates help solve this issue by encrypting your transmitting message from one certified email server to another. This result is a secure email that protects your data.

SSL vs. TLS Email

The differences between an SSL vs. a TLS certificate email are minor. Both play the same role of encrypting data exchanges. TLS is, though, preferential, as it is the updated version of SSL. This doesn't mean SSL is less secure, and if your email software uses SSL, you get virtually the same protection. Only a very technical person will spot the differences.
Whether it’s SSL or TLS, it’s essential to consider the protocol version. Older versions continue to reveal vulnerabilities over the years. Most modern browsers show security warnings when encountering a web server using outdated protocols. This is because they are considered unsafe. For these reasons, only the newest SSL and TLS protocols are best to exploit.

If you are technical enough to configure an email server for your business, you should install software that supports the latest version of TLS. This ensures that the connections are as secure as possible. 

Are Your Emails SSL / TLS Secured?

If using mainstream services, like Gmail, you don't need to do anything in most cases. These email clients already use the latest TLS protocols to protect your emails. So you get a free secure email certificate with no required setup. But there is a catch.

Emails are only secure if both the sender and recipient use SSL/TLS. Since every reputable service uses email encryption certificates, it would be rare that you will send or receive communications from someone using a non-secure mail service. 

The standard form of TLS used by Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, and others is called Opportunistic TLS and works by securing email wherever possible. 

However, when the target mail server does not support TLS, the sender’s server will use an unencrypted channel to deliver the email, prioritizing delivery. As such, there is less of a chance that a message is not delivered. However, you accept an elevated security risk of sending and receiving unencrypted emails.

Put simply, delivery is more important than security with opportunistic TLS.

Another configuration of TLS for email encryption is forced TLS, where security is the priority. Servers using forced TLS will only seek to establish an encrypted tunnel that sends a message securely. But in cases where this is not possible, the email simply won’t be sent at all.

It is typically used for communication between institutions and organizations at greater risk of being hacked rather than for everyday email exchanges with customers, family, and friends.

Put simply, security is more important than deliverability with forced TLS encryption email.

While you will not be able to use forced TLS in your regular mail account, paid business email services, like Microsoft 365 Exchange Online and Google Workspace, offer this function. Any service you choose for this purpose will have documentation on setting up forced TLS in the connection security options. You can find Microsoft 365 Exchange Online instructions here and Google Workspace here.

Wrap Up

This article covered what is a security certificate, the difference between SSL and TLS, and what is SSL email? Everything you need to know for keeping hackers at bay when it comes to your online correspondence.

Leading email providers and ISPs use the latest versions of TLS. And while TLS already protects regular Gmail or Yahoo accounts, they are not 100% secure. Covering those gaps means using forced TLS. This comes at the cost of deliverability and is put in use only in niche situations, like internal communications by larger organizations and companies. 

Forced TLS is not the best choice unless you require security over deliverability. Setting it up can be technical, and you will need to dive into your provider’s documentation.

The digital email certificate that comes with standard free email services should suffice for everyday users. Just make sure it's a reputable provider. 

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Deyan G.

Deyan G.

Techjury.net's manager. Deyan has been fascinated by technology his whole life. From the first Tetris game all the way to Falcon Heavy. Working for TechJury is like a dream come true, combining both his passions – writing and technology. In his free time (which is pretty scarce, thanks to his three kids), Deyan enjoys traveling and exploring new places. Always with a few chargers and a couple of gadgets in the backpack. He makes mean dizzying Island Paradise cocktails too.

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