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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 “adele-en@gnupp.de” 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.

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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 129 by .
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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 kiwicottage January 3, 2012 at 12:10 pm

How is this different from Identity Cloaker that you rave but?

2 Bill Rounds Esq. January 3, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Hi kiwicottage,

That is a good question. Identity Cloaker is a virtual private network (VPN) service. A VPN is used to route your traffic through a different computer to avoid internet censorship in geographic locations and to prevent others from physically locating you based on your IP address.

Examples of internet censorship might include the government of China preventing anyone in China from accessing certain websites, or a work computer that prevents you from accessing a site like YouTube from work.

Your IP address can be linked to your physical address. Websites that you visit can see your IP address and so can your internet service provider. Anyone with access to those records can catalog very detailed information about your internet usage.

A good VPN service will prevent these kinds of restrictions and surveillance. I like Identity Cloaker because it is based outside of the US. There are many others that are very good, like Witopia or Cryptohippie.

Email encryption, as I discuss in this article, is for encrypting email messages only. Even if you are using a VPN, you will be logging into your email provider to read and send emails. Your email provider, and anyone who warrantlessly searches your email provider’s records, can read those email messages unless you encrypt them. Also, when you send an email message, every computer that it bounces through to be routed to the recipient will be able to read the entire message unless it is encrypted.

Just using a VPN will not protect your email messages from serious snooping. Encrypting your emails is the best way to increase the privacy of your messages.

I hope this makes it more clear for you.



3 George Tirebiter January 7, 2012 at 12:37 pm

Hello Bill,
Since IdentityCloaker is supposed to encrypt all data between the user’s PC and its proxy servers, does it also work to encrypt the email with GnuPG before the Cloaker software also encrypts it or will this cause problems? Thanks George

4 Bill Rounds Esq. January 7, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Hi George,

VPNs, like Identity Cloaker, only encrypt the traffic between your computer and the VPN. This way an ISP, an investigator looking at ISP records, or someone sniffing internet traffic can’t see the data being passed along to your own computer.

Email is different. You use the servers of your email provider to store and transmit the email. The email is transmitted in plain text through several nodes on the internet before it ultimately resides on the server of the email provider of the recipient. Thus, your email provider, the recipient’s email provider and any node along the way can read the complete email message.

Using a VPN like Identity Cloaker does not encrypt the email message keeping it private from either email provider or the other nodes.

GnuPG encrypts the email message before it leaves your computer and allows the recipient to decrypt it on their own computer. Thus, the message stays encrypted and your email service provider, the nodes on the internet, and the recipient email provider will not be able to read the message.

The two are encrypting completely different kinds of information at different points in the process in order to prevent two different types of privacy risks.

I hope this helps. Let me know if there is more that I can do. Maybe a whole article on the difference would be helpful.



5 Eileen January 16, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Have there been some revisions to a stage or two of the encryption set-up instructions? I have gotten a PATH error at the enigma installation point and an END PROGRAM ERROR at the key management step, following the instructions closely.

Thanks for your website and your time.

6 Bill Rounds Esq. January 17, 2012 at 10:45 am

Hi Eileen,

These steps should work for most people, but there may be many different issues that could arise, many more than I can deal with here in one article. There is a quick start guide which may have more detail and there are also forums and other resources to help you work through individual problems.

Quick Start Guide

Other Resources

I hope that helps point you in the right direction.



7 Eileen January 25, 2012 at 2:36 pm

After checking the OTHER RESOURCES, there is still an issue:

At the OpenPGP KEY MANAGEMENT, there is a green ‘in progress’ please wait indicator;

If it is a PATH issue, I need very detailed info to correct this.

Under the Open PGP menu, when I get to the Account / User field to enter the email info, there is a three-dot ellipse and no option to enter anything in this field.

Can anyone out there explain?

Thanks for your time.


8 mitch greenly October 13, 2012 at 5:54 pm

Please provide an Ubuntu guide for those who have escaped microsoft licensing nightmares.

Consider an article that focuses on encrypting WEBmail.

have any XMPP OTR articles yet? ;)

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