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free email encryption

Set Up Free Email Encryption In 15 Minutes

by The Drifter on December 31, 2011

Reading time: 6 – 10 minutes

A lot of people think email encryption is an awesome idea.  But very few of them ever do it.  Emails travel around the internet in plain text. Anybody routing the traffic can easily read the entire content of your emails like a letter carrier can read a post card.  When it is legal to secretly read your emails without a warrant and it is legal to detain you indefinitely without charges, more people than ever might be motivated to start encrypting some of their emails.

I’m sure part of the reason why many people don’t encrypt their emails is because they think it is too complicated, too time consuming, too cumbersome, or requires major computer skills.  A few might even think it is useless, since there are not a lot of people that currently encrypt their email.

If you know more about Gatekeepers and Keymasters than you do about public key and private key cryptography, you are in luck.  Not only is free email encryption very useful, but it is fairly simple, almost seamless, and you don’t need to befriend a bunch of encryption fanatics to use it effectively. Plus, you will not be summoning any giant marshmallow demons when you use it.  Follow these simple steps to set up free email encryption in 15 minutes.

Email Account

To get free email encryption you can use an existing email account, or you can set up a dedicated account to receive your encrypted communications.  A dedicated account is usually unnecessary because your email provider, and warrantless email snoops, will not be able to read any encrypted emails.

The email account that you use must have IMAP or POP forwarding capabilities.  Plenty of email providers, like Gmail or Fastmail, offer this feature in their free accounts.  Yahoo mail only offers forwarding on paid accounts. Before you start, check the settings of your own email to make sure you have IMAP or POP forwarding.  You will use this email address in the setup process.

1. Download Free GnuPG Encryption Software

Both the sender and receiver need to be using the same software in order to properly decrypt the message. GnuPG is one of the leading email encryption programs.  It is like the Microsoft Word of email encryption software, except that it is free.   It is very simple to install and should only take a minute.

Download GnuPG for PC

Download GnuPG for Mac

2. Download Thunderbird from Mozilla

Thunderbird is free email software that will allow you to manage your encrypted messages. It only takes a few moments to set up.  Follow the installation and setup instructions and use your email that has IMAP or POP forwarding in the setup process. This step is also very simple and should only take a minute.

Download Thunderbird for PC

Download Thunderbird for Mac

3. Install Enigmail Plugin

Save the Enigmail file to your computer.  Open Thunderbird and go to the Tools, Add-Ons menu to install Enigmail.

Download Enigmail Plugin for PC or Mac

4. Create Your Encryption Keys

Now that you have the software installed, you are almost ready to start encrypting your email. You will want to close Thunderbird and GnuPG before continuing.  Open Thunderbird up again and  go to the OpenPGP menu and select Key Management.  Then click on Generate and then New Key Pair.

Choose the email address you want to use  and come up with a passphrase to send and receive encrypted email using strong password techniques.  Click on Generate key and your keys will be generated shortly!

5.  Penultimate Free Email Encryption Setup Items

Thunderbird will ask you if you want a revocation certificate, which is a good idea to have in case of a disaster, so click yes on that option.

Check out your key id by going to Key Management under the OpenPGP menu item.  Search for your email address and write down or save the key ID.

6. Publish Your Public Key

You want everyone in the world to know your public key.  Without it, nobody can send you an encrypted email.  You can publish your public key in the public key directory by going to Key Management, highlighting your email, go to the Keyserver menu item and select Upload Public Keys.  You can also publish your public key on your website, email it to all of your friends, or put it anywhere else by going to edit, copy to clipboard and then pasting your public key where you like.

You are completely ready to use free encrypted email now.

Use Free Email Encryption

Now that you have  a new toy, you might want to test it out.    Check out these detailed instructions on how to send an encrypted email.  Compose a message and send it to “[email protected]” with your public key attached.  Send signed and encrypted messages and you will receive a response within a few minutes letting you know whether it worked or not.

Free Email Encryption Prevents Email Scams

Even if you are the only kid on your block with email encryption, it is still a very useful tool. Email scams are big business.  I am sure most of us have seen an email from someone impersonating one of your contacts.  When you sign an email, even if the email itself is not encrypted, the recipient knows you are sending it. The recipient doesn’t need to be using email encryption to prevent email impersonation scams.


Free email encryption is one of the best ways to get a lot more privacy for very little effort.  It will keep warrantless snoops from invading your private life. Massive surveillance of private messages will be much more difficult when private emails are encrypted. It is easier, less cumbersome, and less time consuming than most people probably realize. Check out more ways to protect your privacy in the book How To Vanish.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The Drifter is a California attorney. He holds a degree in Accounting from the University of Utah and a law degree from California Western School of Law. He practices civil litigation, domestic and foreign business entity formation and transactions, criminal defense and privacy law. He is a strong advocate of personal and financial freedom and civil liberties. This is merely one article of 131 by .
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