Can Encrypted Emails Be Hacked? (How to Protect)

Hacking is a common word these days, used to explain various computer problems. IT technicians are often called out to repair a problem that the user blames on either a virus or a hacker. That does not mean that hacking isn’t a serious threat, though, and with people often sending sensitive information over emails, we have to ask, can encrypted emails be hacked?

Encrypted emails can be hacked, just like anything can. Perfect security doesn’t exist. Hacking encrypted email through brute-force with current computing power will take a very long time, though, but hackers have other ways around email encryption, so yes, they can get access to encrypted emails.

What is commonly seen as hacking and how Hollywood portrays it is known as a brute-force attack. It’s estimated that brute-forcing encryption will take 6.4 quadrillion years with today’s computers. But real hackers have other ways to gain access to encrypted emails, so encryption is far from perfect. We need to be aware of what they do to protect our data adequately.

can encrypted emails be hacked

How Hackers Hack Encrypted Emails

As mentioned before, physically breaking the encryption of an email is a long (understatement of the century) and fruitless endeavor. This may be changing soon with the advances computer scientists are making in quantum computing, but at the moment, it’s highly unlikely, even though theoretically possible, to break encryption. So hackers have to use other ways to access your encrypted emails.

Looking For Vulnerabilities In Encryption Protocols

All software is man-made, and thus all software is imperfect. This includes networking and encryption protocols. Cybersecurity is a constant back-and-forth between the hackers (“black hat” or malicious hackers) trying to find and exploit these vulnerabilities and the cybersecurity specialists (“white hat” hackers) trying to find and patch these vulnerabilities before hackers can do damage.

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Using outdated software, like old email client software that’s more than a few updates behind, could mean that you still have some unpatched vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit. This sometimes allows hackers to insert their own encryption keys before the email is encrypted, giving them the ability to decrypt any encrypted email messages you send.

These vulnerabilities are usually the least of a worry since most of them are patched long before they become a common problem. They can become a problem if you keep using unsupported software or just don’t install updates. Again, updates are no guarantee, but having the latest software versions ensures that all known vulnerabilities are patched.

Accessing Encrypted Emails Before They Are Encrypted

This is often the easiest way to gain access to encrypted emails. If a hacker can access your computer or your email client before you encrypt and send the mail, they can see precisely what you’re saying. Compared to breaking encryption, this is quickly done by targeting vulnerabilities in your operating system or software or installing keylogging or remote access software on your device.

Keyloggers and similar malware also rely on some known vulnerabilities. Still, even if those vulnerabilities are patched, they can gain access through one of the most significant vulnerabilities of all: human error. 

Some of us are easily fooled into believing that something or someone is legit, leading us to click on unknown links or accept the installation of unknown software despite the warnings that our operating system or antimalware software is giving us. This provides hackers with easy access to our computer and allows them to see any data we have, including emails, in its unencrypted state.

Accessing Encrypted Emails After They Are Encrypted

This is basically the other side of the previous method. Instead of gaining access to the sender’s system, the hacker may use similar techniques to break into the recipient’s system and read the email (and responses) on the receiving end. The same vulnerabilities apply and can be exploited in exactly the same way. If hackers find that you are too tech-savvy, they may target your recipient.

Stealing Encryption Keys

Most of the encryption keys for services we use daily, like email, are stored electronically on our devices. Most of us won’t even be aware of this; we just know that the email works, but an encryption key is stored somewhere to make it work. If a hacker knows where this key is stored and they gain access to your computer, they can copy the keys and use them to decrypt your emails.

Many services, like Apple’s iCloud, allow you to sync these encryption keys to the cloud, so if a hacker only gains access to your iCloud account if you’re an Apple user, they will have access to any of your encrypted data, including encrypted emails. This is easier said than done, thankfully, but it’s still easier than brute-forcing their way past the encryption.

Protecting Your Encrypted Emails From Hackers

protecting your encrypted emails

Without going into technical details, there are several methods you can use to keep your encrypted emails safe. These are not focused on business users, who may need to pay for extra security measures. Still, they are perfectly good measures for personal use, even for those who work with sensitive data a lot, sending emails that could cause severe damage if compromised.

Don’t Use Public WiFi Or Other Computers Than Your Own

Accessing your email or sensitive data on someone else’s computer or device, especially public computers like those at a library or internet cafè, could easily compromise your emails. Since the email is in plain text until it is sent, anyone with remote access to that computer can see what you’re doing or put malware on it to track your activity. Don’t access sensitive data on it.

Using public WiFi is known to be one way to gain access to someone else’s device. Once you click “Send,” the email will be encrypted, but if your device is connected to the WiFi, there are all kinds of ways for someone to gain access and monitor your activity and data. This is one popular way for hackers to get into systems – they simply create a “free and open WiFi connection” for others to use.

Use Proper Antimalware Software

Many methods hackers use to hack into your system or your encrypted emails involve malware like keyloggers and trojan horses. Having a reliable, proven antimalware software package installed (preferably a paid service, not a free option) could help you identify this before they exploit the weakness. Don’t ignore the warnings either – false positives happen, but rather be safe.

Keep All Software Up To Date

Most modern software is set to update automatically. Windows 10 and 11 don’t even give you a choice anymore; you have to bypass operating system features to turn updates off. There is an excellent reason for this. Yes, updates can sometimes cause problems, but if you work with sensitive data and send many compromising emails, rather err on the side of safety and install the update.

Don’t Be Gullible

Got a call from “Microsoft Tech Support?” No, you didn’t. An email with an urgent invoice that you don’t know about? Nope. Hackers will use these phishing techniques to get you to give them access to your system voluntarily. It’s easier than Hollywood-style hacking. Please don’t fall for it. It may sound legit, but rather ignore the call or email and call the company yourself to make sure.

Conclusion

As mentioned before, anything can be hacked or gained access to. The only exception to some extent is a system that is entirely offline, which is of very little use in today’s world. We can only try to make it as difficult as possible for a hacker to hack our encrypted emails. Hopefully, if we make it difficult enough, they will feel it isn’t worth the effort and move on.

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