Email remained a top attack vector for cybercriminals in 2022 as organizations across several industries, such as financial services, legal, manufacturing, and healthcare, fell victim to email-based cyberattacks. A whopping 75% of organizations experienced a successful email attack in 2022!
While phishing is the most prevalent email attack form, data leaks, business email compromises (BEC), spoofing, and ransomware attacks became more rampant this past year.
The trend is likely to continue this year as well as recent reports suggest that three out of four companies have experienced an increase in email-based threats. The rise in email communication due to remote work, the sensitivity of data transmitted over email, and the low cost and ease of executing email attacks have led to this steady increase.
Another significant concern is the rising sophistication of email-based attacks. Threat actors have started to use AI-powered chatbots to produce convincing phishing emails at large scale and automation to launch attacks. Such advancements have compounded the problem, making it harder to detect and mitigate these threats.
The consequences of email compromises are also more severe than before. According to the 2023 Email Security Trends Report, the average cost of the most expensive attack is estimated at around $1 million! And the impact is not just monetary; email attacks often lead to sensitive data loss, service disruption, loss of employee productivity, regulatory penalties, and reputational damage.
Lack of Layered Protection Increases Email Risks
Many organizations rely solely on the default security controls offered by email server platforms such as Microsoft Exchange, Google Workspace, and others for email security. But, attackers have found ways to dodge these controls and spoof standard business processes, making it difficult for users to differentiate between legitimate and fake emails. It is said that over half of phishing emails today are so well-designed that they can easily evade native security defenses in Microsoft 365.
According to the Email Security Risk Report, 92% of surveyed organizations suffered a successful phishing attack in their Microsoft 365 environment. It is also reported that most organizations today feel underprepared to tackle email threats and believe they need stronger protections than those that come with their Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace applications.
Securing emails requires additional layered protection, and this is where public key infrastructure (PKI) comes into play. PKI is a widely used security tool for authentication and data encryption. Based on the concept of digital identities, PKI (digital certificates and cryptographic keys) helps secure emails in three ways:
- Binding the identity of the sender to the email for reliable sender authentication
- Encrypting the email message to ensure its privacy, integrity, and security
- Digitally signing the email providing non-repudiation
How PKI Certificates Help Double Down on Email Security
S/MIME (Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) is an encryption protocol defined for securing emails. Based on public key cryptography, S/MIME can be used to digitally sign and encrypt emails for secure communication. Digitally signing emails helps embed the identity of the sender into the email and provides a guarantee to the recipient that the message sent is in its original form and not altered during transit. The digital signature also serves as proof of non-repudiation, which means that the sender of the email who signed it cannot deny sending the email.
While the digital signature helps verify the identity of the sender, end-to-end encryption protects the contents of the email message, so they cannot be intercepted or altered during transit. In other words, S/MIME certificates provide authentication, confidentiality, and data integrity for emails.
Signing emails with a S/MIME certificate is a great way of assuring your customers, partners, and employees that the emails they have received are indeed from you and genuine. This helps prevent them from falling prey to phishing, spoofing, and other forms of email fraud.
End-to-end encryption is especially important when you are sharing highly sensitive and valuable information, such as business contracts, financial statements, sales reports, employee personal identifiable information (PII), and patient medical records via email. Encrypting these emails can prevent malicious actors from intercepting your messages and meddling with the documents, even when they gain access to your account login credentials.
When you follow email encryption as a standard business practice, it also becomes easier to comply with industry regulations, such as HIPAA, GDPR, and PCI DSS that prioritize data privacy.
Here’s a quick look at how S/MIME security works:
As mentioned earlier, S/MIME uses public key cryptography and digital certificates for digital signatures and email encryption. With digital signatures, the email is signed with the sender’s private key and the public key is attached to the digital signature. The digital signature ensures that the message originated from the signer and was not altered.
On receiving the email, the reciever is able to verify the sender’s identity with the help of the digital signature and the sender’s public key, therefore trusting the origin of the email. Outlook will also display a user friendly, visual icon of a red ribbon to demonstrate that the email was digitally signed. When clicking the red ribbon, you can view the digital certificate associated with the user who signed the email.
How Email Digital Signatures Work Behind the Scenes
For email encryption, the sender and receiver first need to exchange their public keys to be able to encrypt emails to one another, which can be done by exchanging digitally signed emails.
The sender can then encrypt an email to the receiver using the receiver’s public key (obtained from a prior digitally signed email). The receiver decrypts the email message with their private key and is able to view the email (only the receiver has the corresponding private key that can be used to decrypt/view the email). Outlook will display the visual of a padlock for encrypted emails, which is clickable to view further digital certificate information.
S/MIME certificates are usually provisioned to individual email accounts. So, these are great for sender authentication and email message encryption. But there is still the possibility of attackers attempting to eavesdrop on email communications while in transit between two email servers.
How Email Encryption Works Behind the Scenes
To address this challenge, PKI allows you to create a secure communication channel over the internet for email transmission. With a PKI-based SSL/TLS certificate, you can secure the email server itself through which your emails travel, so no attackers on the network are able to eavesdrop on your communications and meddle with their contents in transit.
While SSL/TLS certificates ensure your emails are transmitted over a secure channel, S/MIME certificates can help ensure your emails are encrypted and protected while resting on the web server.
Robust Email Security is a Cybersecurity Basic in the Digital World
Email is the most integral and essential part of everyday business communication. This is also why email-borne cyberattacks are seeing a stark rise. While educating and training employees about email security best practices is undoubtedly a must, human misjudgment will always be a risk. So, it is best to employ comprehensive and layered security solutions such as PKI for multi-factor authentication and defend your email communications against evasive threats.
Often, organizations shy away from implementing S/MIME and TLS for emails due to the time-consuming deployment process. But that’s no longer the case. With an automated certificate management solution, you can install and manage all digital certificates from a single central interface, making the entire process easy and stress-free.
Meet AppViewX CERT+
AppViewX CERT+ is a ready-to-consume, scalable certificate lifecycle management (CLM) solution that automates all certificate processes end-to-end. You can discover, inventory, monitor, and automate the complete certificate lifecycle, all through a central console. This includes helping you efficiently manage and automate the provisioning of S/MIME and TLS certificates used for secure email. By providing visibility, control, and insights across on-premises, multi-cloud, hybrid cloud, and containerized environments, AppViewX CERT+ simplifies certificate lifecycle management and helps you stay on top of cyber threats.