August 30, 2023
 min read

Mastering Email Data Security: Exploring Threats and Effective Solutions

Exposing email security threats & robust solutions. Elevate your communication protection with best practices


A staggering 91% of cyber-attacks are initiated through emails, underscoring the critical importance of email security in today's digital age. Given the importance of email in business communications, it's a prime target for cyber-criminals, exposing firms to threats like phishing, account breaches, and man-in-the-middle attacks. 

Standard email protocols often lack robust security measures, making them vulnerable to interceptions and lacking end-to-end encryption. This, combined with human errors like sending sensitive data to the wrong recipients, exacerbates the risks.

Adopting DLP email security solutions is paramount to combat these vulnerabilities. DLPs act as vigilant sentinels, monitoring, detecting, and blocking unauthorized data transmissions, ensuring sensitive information remains secure within an organization. Best practices in this realm include:

  • Content inspection using machine learning.
  • Role-based access controls combined with encryption.
  • Regular employee training on security protocols.

Imagine waking up one morning to discover financial projections, client data, or confidential designs that you emailed to a colleague the day before have been intercepted. This can put your business at risk and cause devastating losses with potential lawsuits and an irreparably damaged reputation that could take years to recover.

With billions of emails sent every day carrying everything from holiday greetings to confidential business secrets, the vulnerability of our inboxes has never been more evident. 91% of cyber attacks begin with a simple email, and a single wrong click on a suspicious link or an unsuspecting download can have devastating consequences. This could compromise personal data, financial information, and corporate intellectual property.

In this blog post, discover the critical threats to email security and actionable steps to transform your email system into a bastion of digital safety.

What is Email DLP?

Email Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions are designed to protect confidential and sensitive data from unauthorized transmission during transit and rest. They detect, monitor, and block any sensitive data from being sent outside the organization's network - accidental or malicious. DLP identifies confidential emails, ensuring no private information is lost or stolen. 

Is it safe to send sensitive data via email?

Gmail sensitive data redaction

When it comes to sending sensitive data, emails may be convenient and commonly used, but they are not secure. Sending confidential information via email would be like writing your secrets on a postcard - anyone can read it, making it vulnerable to potential breaches.

Vulnerability to interception:  Imagine sending a confidential financial report or medical record through traditional mail without sealing the envelope. That's what happens when you send unencrypted emails – they pass through multiple servers and networks before reaching their final destination, leaving them open to potential interception. It's like a letter being read by every post office it passes. Anyone with the right tools, like a hacker spying on an unsecured Wi-Fi network, can intercept and read these emails without encryption.

Lack of end-to-end encryption: By default, standard email protocols (SMTP, POP3, IMAP) do not provide end-to-end encryption for the contents of messages. This means that even when encryption is used during transit (e.g., with TLS), emails may still be vulnerable to breaches while stored on the email servers. Implementing end-to-end email encryption, both in transit and at rest, becomes indispensable for secure communication.

Phishing and malware risks: Cybersecurity threats, such as phishing scams and malicious attachments, are a major risk to organizations and individuals. For example, a finance executive or hospital administrator may receive an email that looks legitimate but is a scam intended to steal financial credentials or introduce malware into systems. These threats can put confidential information at risk by tricking people into providing sensitive details or downloading malicious material.

Account breaches: Email accounts can be a treasure trove for hackers if they manage to gain access. Emails can include sensitive information such as financial transactions, client data, healthcare records, or business strategies that are not regularly cleared out or encrypted. A breached email account could provide an attacker unrestricted access to all of these important documents - like having the keys to a filing cabinet filled with critical information.

Human error: Everyone makes mistakes, and small errors can have major consequences when it comes to emails. From accidentally sending sensitive data to the wrong recipient to compromising business strategies, a single misstep with an email can be devastating. Unfortunately, taking back or controlling who might view it once sent can be difficult.

Data retention issues: When it comes to emails, deleting them does not mean they're gone forever. Many email servers retain backups of all emails sent and received, even if they have been deleted from the main screen. This means that if a security breach occurs, sensitive information like trade secrets or medical diagnoses could be exposed without warning, leading to disastrous results.

Regulatory concerns: Fintech and health tech sectors face some of the strictest regulations. Financial institutions must adhere to data safety protocols for protecting clients' financial information, while healthcare organizations must comply with confidentiality agreements to safeguard patient data. If unsecured emails are used for transmitting such confidential information, there can be severe regulatory repercussions, including hefty fines and damaged reputations. 

PHI data elements are often exposed through massive data breaches. BayCare Clinic LLP accidentally leaked PHI of up to 134,000 patients when its partner included a tracking pixel in its Web pages. But PHI can also be exposed through common workplace business productivity tools. An employee at Atrium Health disclosed PHI when he responded to a phishing email with account credentials. Leaks can also occur when patients and providers become sloppy about sharing information. That's why DLP solutions like Strac are critical to ensuring compliance with the HIPAA to redact sensitive data elements.

No control after sending: Sending an email is like letting a bird go and not knowing where it will end up. Once you hit "send," you can no longer control the path of the information contained in the email. It could be forwarded, shared, or printed by recipients without your knowledge, jeopardizing its security and making it reliant on those with access to it.

Why does email data security matter?

DLP email security encompasses a range of techniques and best practices designed to shield email communication and accounts from unauthorized access, compromise, or loss. This protection extends to threats like phishing attacks, malware dissemination, and unwarranted data breaches. In 2016, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) fell victim to a substantial email breach, leading to the public disclosure of sensitive emails and demonstrating the criticality of maintaining a secure email environment.

Redaction of PII in Gmail

Here is why email data security matters:

Protection from cyber-criminals

Unfortunately, with the widespread use of emails comes an increased risk of cyber-criminal activity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, phishing attacks escalated as attackers sought to take advantage of the transition to remote work. People using their company emails were especially vulnerable to malicious entities looking to exploit these communications channels.

Source - Phishing & Fraud Report, Fourth Edition.

Consequences of email vulnerabilities

DLP email encryption is like a strong castle, but vulnerability can lead to devastating consequences. The WannaCry ransomware attack of 2017 is an example of this. From seemingly innocent email attachments, it quickly spread to computers worldwide and encrypted their data, leaving them vulnerable to ransom demands. This incident highlights how just one tiny breach in email security can have global ripple effects and cause major disruptions in organizations' infrastructures.

The need to guard sensitive information

Emails are more than just communication vessels: they store valuable data and sensitive information, from trade secrets to personal details. This emphasizes the vital importance of DLP email encryption - a lesson learned too well when Sony Pictures suffered a major email hack in 2014. Their breach led to the public release of confidential information, unreleased films, and other private data, which could have been prevented with the right security measures.

The evolution of cyber threats 

As the digital age continues to evolve, cybercriminals adapt and utilize cutting-edge technologies such as AI and machine learning to devise intricate attacks. These threats extend beyond email systems, compromising cloud services and other digital infrastructures.

Learn more about preventing AI data leaks here ➡️How to prevent AI data leaks? 

The Blackbaud incident of 2020 serves as an example of a significant breach where hackers exploited a vulnerability in the company's cloud infrastructure, stealing sensitive information from their clients. It is now more important than ever to strengthen DLP email security and bolster the resilience of our overall digital ecosystem against emerging threats.

Common threats to email security

Emails often face threats from deceptive phishing links and harmful malware attachments.  Here are the most common email threats.

Man-in-the-Middle Attacks (MitM)

Man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks are cyber attacks where an attacker secretly intercepts and manipulates the communication between two parties. This attack was famous in 2013 when British spy agency GCHQ infiltrated Belgacom, one of Belgium's largest telecommunications companies, to steal data from the company's employees and email server.

Business Email Compromise (BEC)

Business Email Compromise (BEC) is a form of cybercrime that includes the unauthorized access and use of a business email account. This type of fraud can be used to defraud the company or its customers, partners, and other businesses. For example, in 2016, toy manufacturer Mattel almost lost $3 million to a BEC scam where a finance executive was tricked into sending funds to a fake account in China.

Spam and Unsolicited Emails

Spam emails can cause more than just annoyance. They can overload email servers, spread malicious content, and even be used to carry out targeted attacks. One notable example of this was in 2007 when the Storm Worm botnet sent billions of spam emails to spread its malware, which resulted in over a million computers being infected worldwide.

Domain Spoofing

Domain spoofing is a type of cyber attack in which malicious actors send emails that appear to be from a legitimate domain to deceive recipients. Cybercriminals are taking advantage of Amazon's vast user base by sending phishing emails disguised as customer service messages. These emails often try to convince the recipient of an issue with a recent order or payment details and direct them to malicious sites.

Zero-day Vulnerabilities

Zero-day vulnerabilities are security flaws in software or hardware that are unknown to the vendor and can be exploited by hackers. For example, in 2018, a zero-day vulnerability in Microsoft Office allowed cyber criminals to spread malware through email attachments without requiring the recipient to open the attachment.

Email Bombing

Email bombing is an attack strategy where large volumes of emails are sent to a single person or system, causing the email server or system to become overloaded and crash. This was demonstrated in 1996 when Panix, an Internet service provider, was targeted in an attack that left their email services down for several days.

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS)

A DDoS attack is a malicious cyber attack where an attacker uses a botnet to send a flood of requests to overwhelm and disable a website or online service. The primary goal is to make the target unavailable, preventing legitimate users from accessing it. 

In 2008, the Conficker botnet infected millions of machines with malware. It exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows, allowing the botmaster to steal user credentials, download malicious software, or launch attacks.

Similarly, in 2016, the Dyn Domain Name System (DNS) experienced one of the biggest DDoS attacks when Mirai botnet-infected Internet of Things (IoT) devices were used to disrupt major websites.

FYI - Botnets are malicious networks of computers and devices that have been compromised without their owners' knowledge. These bots, or ‘zombies’, can be remotely controlled by an attacker, the botmaster, or herder. 

Top 3 email DLP best practices

Email Data Loss Prevention (DLP) is a must for any organization that wants to protect sensitive or confidential information from being shared without permission. To successfully implement DLP email security solutions, here are the top three email DLP best practices:

Content Inspection and Contextual Analysis

Rather than relying solely on traditional rules, DLP systems must be able to analyze emails and the context of any data shared thoroughly. This involves scanning for attachments, email bodies, automatically recognizing sensitive data, and even understanding the meaning of the content

To do this effectively, use sophisticated DLP solutions powered by machine learning and natural language processing.  Strac automatically detects and redacts unstructured documents that contain any sensitive detail. Those documents could be pdf, jpeg, png, image, word doc, excel spreadsheets, etc. Also, it will detect/redact unstructured text in email bodies.

Role-based Access Controls and encryption

When it comes to employee data, not all staff should have access to everything. Role-based access allows us to ensure that employees can view and share only the data relevant to their jobs. We must employ encryption strategies at rest and when transmitted to protect sensitive data further. This will keep our data secure even if a breach is detected.

For instance, while HR staff require access to personal employee data, they might not need access to company financial projections. It is also important to use end-to-end encryption for emails, especially when communicating with external parties, as this will ensure that all data remains secure.

Learn more about sharing sensitive information in an end-to-end encrypted way ⬇️

Regular training and awareness programs

Organizing regular data security awareness training sessions for all employees is essential to minimize the risk of data breaches. Training should include real-life examples of data breaches and their consequences. To further test employee vigilance, run simulated phishing campaigns and provide feedback and instructions based on the results.

The Email DLP solution You Need

Email remains the primary mode of communication for businesses worldwide, but it also poses significant security risks. 

Strac's Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solution helps to reduce these risks by protecting every email—whether in transit or at rest—from potential threats.

Here’s what Strac can do for you⬇️

☑️Strac offers comprehensive redaction of sensitive data across all major SaaS platforms, such as Gmail, Slack, ChatGPT, Box, Zendesk, Salesforce, Google Drive, and cloud platforms like AWS and Azure. 

➡️ Want to learn more about Gmail DLP? Read about Strac’s solution for Gmail DLP.

As soon as sensitive data (PII, PHI, or other sensitive data ) is at risk of breach, Strac notifies teams for immediate remediation.  You can also customize it to shield confidential or sensitive data specific to your organization. 

➡️ Learn about Strac’s email redaction from the demo ⬇️

Furthermore, Strac's intuitive reporting system identifies threats and provides actionable insights and remediation steps so that your data is always protected.

What sets Strac apart from the competition?

Its accuracy.

Strac is powered by advanced machine-learning models. It ensures that no data slips through the cracks. To top it off, new integrations are added weekly, so you remain protected regardless of the SaaS tools and platforms you decide to use. 

Strac also helps you stay compliant with global standards like PCI, HIPAA, SOC 2, GDPR, and NIST CSF with out-of-the-box classifiers. 

From detecting and redacting textual comments to unstructured documents such as images and Excel files, Strac offers precision with a seamless user experience. Moreover, we have pioneered AI DLP technology by offering its services for products like ChatGPT and Google Bard

Learn more on sensitive data protection in ChatGPT

With API access, sensitive data can be detected and redacted even before sending it to LLM providers like OpenAI or AWS Bedrock - making Strac the most comprehensive SaaS coverage for secure data management.

Strac DLP integration

Secure your data and pave the way for a digital future with Strac's DLP Solution. Our industry-leading technology prevents data breaches, fosters trust, promotes compliance, and encourages secure data flow. Put the power of Strac at your fingertips for total peace of mind in an ever-evolving digital landscape. 

Read our other resources:

Founder, Strac. ex-Amazon Payments Infrastructure (Widget, API, Security) Builder for 11 years.

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