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SMTP TLS: All About Secure Email Delivery over TLS

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TLS stands for “Transport Layer Security” and is the successor of “SSL” (Secure Socket Layer). TLS is one of the standard ways that computers transmit information over an encrypted channel. In general, when one computer connects to another computer and uses TLS, the following happens:

  1. Computer A connects to Computer B (no security)
  2. Computer B says “Hello” (no security)
  3. Computer A says “Lets talk securely over TLS” (no security)
  4. Computer A and B agree on how to do this (secure)
  5. The rest of the conversation is encrypted (secure)

In particular:

  • The meat of the conversation is encrypted
  • Computer A can verify the identity of Computer B (by examining its SSL certificate, which is required for this dialog)
  • The conversation cannot be eavesdropped upon (without Computer A knowing)
  • The conversation cannot be modified by a third party
  • Other information cannot be injected into the conversation by third parties.

TLS (and SSL) is used for many different reasons on the Internet and helps make the Internet a more secure place, when used. One of the popular uses of TLS is with SMTP.  See also:

TLS with SMTP

The mechanism and language (i.e. protocol) by which one email server transmits email message(s) to another email server is called SMTP (Simple Mail Transport Protocol). For a long time now, email servers have had the option of using TLS to transparently encrypt the message transmission from one server to the other. Use of TLS with SMTP, when available, ensures that the message contents are secured during transmission between the servers.

Not all servers support TLS!  Use of TLS requires

  1. the purchase of one or more SSL certificates
  2. configuring the email servers to use them
  3. additional computational resources on the email servers involved.

For these reasons, many email servers, especially free or public ones, do not support TLS at all (though there is a steady trend toward TLS support; e.g. gmail used to not support TLS, but now they do).

For TLS transmission to be used, the destination email server must “advertise” support for TLS (see: How to Tell Who Supports TLS for Email Transmission) and the sending computer or server must be configured to use TLS connections when possible.

The sending computer could be configured for:

  1. No TLS — never use it.
  2. Opportunistic TLS — use it if it is available, if not, send insecurely.
  3. Forced TLS — use TLS or do not deliver the email at all

How Secure is SMTP TLS?

TLS protects the transmission of the content of email messages. It does nothing for protecting the security of the message before it is sent or after it arrives at its destination.

However, transmission security is all that is required of many organizations (i.e. banks and HIPAA/health care) when sending to customers. In such situations, enforced use of TLS is a good alternative to stronger and less user friendly encryption methods (like PGP and S/MIME) and can prevent insecure delivery of email.

The transmission itself is as secure as can be negotiated between the sending and receiving servers. If they both support strong encryption (i.e. AES 256) then that will be used. If not, a weaker grade of encryption may be used. The sending and receiving servers can choose what kinds of encryption they will support — and if there is no overlap in what they support, then TLS will fail (this is rare).

What about TLS at LuxSci?

Inbound TLS

LuxSci inbound email servers support TLS for encrypted inbound email delivery from any sending email provider that also supports that.

For selected organizations, e.g. Bank of America, LuxSci also locks down its servers so that it only accepts email from them if its is delivered over TLS.

Outbound Opportunistic TLS.

LuxSci outbound email servers will always use TLS with any server that claims to support it.  If the TLS connection to such a server server fails (due to misconfiguration or no security protocols in common), the message will not be sent.

Outbound opportunistic TLS encryption is automatic for all LuxSci customers, even those without SecureLine.

Support strong encryption, up to AES 256 and better

LuxSci servers will use the strongest encryption supported by the recipient’s email server. LuxSci servers will never employ an encryption cipher that uses less than 128 bits (they will failed to deliver rather than deliver via an excessively weak encryption cipher) and they will never use SSL v2.

Forced TLS

LuxSci servers use “Forced TLS” with recipient servers that support TLS if email is being sent to those servers from any SecureLine account using TLS-Only delivery services (outbound email or forwarding). This ensures that messages will never be delivered to such servers, even in the case that they stop supporting TLS suddenly.

Forced TLS is also in place for all LuxSci customers sending to certain Banks and organizations that have requested that we globally enforce TLS to their servers.

Does LuxSci have any other Special TLS Features?

When using SecureLine for outbound email encryption:

  1. Try TLS: Account administrators can choose to have secure messages “try TLS first” and deliver that way.  Only if TLS is not available would the messages fall back and use more secure options like PGP, S/MIME, or Escrow.  This makes email security easy, seamless, and automatic when communicating internally or with others who support TLS.
  2. TLS Only Forwarding: Account administrators can restrict any server side email forwarding settings in their accounts from allowing forwarding to any email addresses which do not support TLS for email delivery.
  3. When TLS delivery is enabled for SecureLine accounts, messages will never be insecurely sent to domains that purport to be TLS-enabled. I.e. TLS delivery is enforced and no longer “opportunistic”.  The system monitors these domains and updates their TLS-compliance status daily.
  4. Double Encryption: Messages sent using SecureLine and PGP or S/MIME will still use Opportunistic TLS whenever possible for message delivery.  In these cases, messages are often “double encrypted”.  Encrypted first with PGP or S/MIME, and then that secure message may be encrypted again during transport using TLS.

For customers whose security or compliance needs allow TLS to be a sufficient form of email encryption, it enables seamless security and “use of email as usual” security.  SecureLine with Forced TLS enables clients to take advantage of this level of security whenever possible, while automatically falling back to other methods when TLS is not available.

Of course, use of Forced TLS as the sole method of encryption is optional; if your compliance needs are stronger, you can disable TLS-Only delivery or restrict it so tat it is used only with specific recipients.

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13 Responses to “SMTP TLS: All About Secure Email Delivery over TLS”

  1. Control Email Forwarding with TLS-Only Forwards | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] restricting email forwarding to only recipients whose email servers support SMTP TLS for message transport encryption, [...]

  2. SMTP TLS Enforced Outbound Encryption with Fall Back to PGP, S/MIME, or Escrow Message Pickup | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] » The LuxSci FYI Blog « Control Email Forwarding with TLS-Only Restriction SMTP TLS: All About Secure Email Delivery over TLS [...]

  3. HIPAA HITECH Business Associate Agreement and LuxSci Account Requirements | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] email capturing, etc.) can only be forwarded only to recipients whose email servers support TLS for SMTP transport encryption. This ensures that all messages forwarded off-site will be encrypted during [...]

  4. Secure TLS Email for Bank of America Partners | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] for many banks that have strict requirements that all email messages be encrypted in transit via TLS when communicating with [...]

  5. How Does Secure Socket Layer (SSL or TLS) Work? | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] SMTP TLS: All About Secure Email Delivery over TLS [...]

  6. Case for Email Security - Why Use Encryption? | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] SMTP does not encrypt messages (unless the servers in question support opportunistic TLS encryption).  Communications between SMTP servers may send your messages in plain text for any eavesdropper [...]

  7. Understanding Email Services: What are they and what do you need? | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] services described below) encrypts the communication between your computer and the server using TLS or SSL such that no one can eavesdrop and detect your username, password, or message contents – the [...]

  8. How Can You Tell if an Email Was Transmitted Using TLS Encryption? | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] we are asked to verify if an email that someone sent or received was encrypted using SMTP TLS while being transmitted over the Internet.  For example, banks, health care organizations under [...]

  9. How to Tell Who Supports TLS for Email Transmission | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] TLS (Transport Layer Security) is the mechanism by which two email servers, when communicating, can automatically negotiate an [...]

  10. Enforcing Email Security with TLS when Communicating with Banks | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] this context, SMTP TLS (which stands for “Transport Layer Security“) is a way that email servers, when talking [...]

  11. Is Blackberry HIPAA Compliant? What You Need To Know | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] the email messages may send them insecurely over the Internet — there is no way to ensure transport email encryption for messages sent from a Blackberry device.  Therefore, ePHI-laden email messages should never be [...]

  12. SecureLine Users Can Toggle Between TLS and Escrow Encryption When Sending Messages | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] SecureLine end-to-end email security system enables allows customers to enable use of TLS for email delivery, without any further encryption, when TLS is supported by the recipient email servers and the [...]

  13. Additional Domain-Level Security Settings Now Available | LuxSci FYI Says:

    [...] of TLS-Only email sending options.  I.e. should TLS be considered a valid method of secure email delivery for [...]

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