Why is anyone using encrypted e-mail anymore, anyway? Reliably and easily encrypting e-mail is an insurmountably hard problem for reasons having nothing to do with today’s announcement. If you need to communicate securely, use Signal. If having Signal on your phone will arouse suspicion, use WhatsApp.
Interesting that Bruce things email encryption is a lost cause. For reasons that are mostly about ease of use.
One of the features the OS X Mail app offers is encrypted email. OS X Mail allows the user to send digitally signed or encrypted email to protect your electronic communications. I’ve written about digital certificates before. The idea is to use a special key — a digital certificate — to sign and encode your email so that only the intended recipient can read it. Encrypted email is a great way to send confidential information — passwords, social security numbers etc. — without worrying about who might intercept my email. An SSL email certificate ensures your mail cannot be read by anyone but the intended recipients. It also ensures your message was not modified during transmission and allow recipients to confirm your identity as the sender of the message1.
In this post, I will walk you through the steps to securing email in OS X. The steps to follow should allow you to encrypt your email communications in any mail application on OS X.
Getting a digital certificate
I use free email certificates issued by certificate authority StartSS but you can also get free certificates from Comodo or spend some money and get one from Symantec. The key is to make sure you get a certificate from a trusted source. Getting an email certificate requires you to fill out a form on the certificate authority web site with some basic information and then waiting for a confirmation email. Once you have received the email, follow the instructions to download and install your certificate. On Mac OS X that means downloading the certificate file and opening it in Keychain.
Once you receive the confirmation email from the certificate authority, follow the instructions to download the certificate to your Mac.
On Mac OS X digital certificates are stored in OS X Keychain Access. The certificate file will have a file extension that indicates it contains certificates—such as .cer, .crt, .p12, or .p7c. Locate the certificate file and double-click to import into Keychain Access. Once you import your certificate, it should be listed in the My Certificates category in Keychain Access. If Keychain Access can’t import the certificate, try dragging the file onto the Keychain Access icon in the Finder. If that doesn’t work, contact the CA to ask if the certificate is expired or invalid.
Alternatively, you can launch Keychain Access (look in the Utilities folder inside the Applications folder) and type Shift-CMD-I to import the file. Once the certificate file has been imported I strongly recommend that you save your certificate to a safe place if you need to reload it later. I keep mine on an encrypted USB flash drive.
Open your certificate in Keychain Access and make sure its trust setting is “Use System Defaults” or “Always Trust.” Now you can use the certificate to send and receive signed and encrypted messages.
Using the certificate for encrypted email
A signed message lets the recipients verify your identity as the sender; an encrypted message offers an even higher level of security. To send signed messages, you use your personal certificate from your keychain but to send encrypted messages, the recipient’s certificate must be in your keychain.
Open OS X Mail and create a new message. Choose the email account for which you have a personal email certificate in your keychain. OS X Mail includes a security field in the header area that indicates whether a message is signed or encrypted. A signed icon (containing a check mark) in the lower-right side of the message header indicates the message will be signed when you send it.
To send the message unsigned, click the Signed icon; an “x” replaces the check mark. An encrypt (closed lock) icon appears next to the signed icon if you have a personal certificate for every recipient in your keychain; the icon indicates the message will be encrypted when you send it.
If you don’t have a certificate for every recipient, you must cancel the message or send it unencrypted (click the Encrypt icon; an open lock icon replaces the closed lock icon).
When you received a signed message, an icon (a check mark) appears in the header area of a signed message. To view the certificate details, click the icon.
If the message was altered after it was signed, OS X Mail displays a warning that it can’t verify the message signature. A lock icon appears in the header area of an encrypted message. If you have your private key in your keychain, the message is decrypted for viewing. Otherwise, Mail indicates it can’t decrypt the message.
To include encrypted messages when you search for messages in Mail, set the option in the General pane of Mail preferences. Although the message is stored encrypted, the option enables Mail to search individual words.
One of the least mentioned features of the new Mail app in iOS 5 is encrypted email. iOS 5 allows the user to send digitally signed or encrypted email to protect your electronic communications. I’ve written about digital certificates before on this blog. The idea is to use a unique key — a digital certificate — to sign and encode your email so that only the intended recipient can read it. I’ve wanted this feature in iOS for a while. Encrypted email is a great way to send confidential information — passwords, social security numbers etc. — without worrying about who might intercept my email.1
Getting a digital cert
I use free digital certificates issued by certificate authority Comodo, but you can also get a paid one from Verisgn. Getting a certificate issued is quite easy. Fill out the form on the web site with some basic information and wait for an email. Follow the instructions in the email to download and install your certificate. On Mac OS X that means downloading the certificate file and opening it in Keychain.2
On Mac OS X digital certificates are stored in the Keychain. I want to use the certificate with my iPad or iPhone so I need to bring that certificate over to the iPad. This means I’ll need to export the certificate from Keychain and import into the iPad.
Once your certificate has been installed, launch Keychain and find your certificate in the Certificates section of Keychain. Right click the certificate and export it to somewhere on your hard drive. I exported the certificate from Keychain to my Documents folder. Make to protect the certificate file with a string password when prompted.
Creating a configuration profile
To install the certificate onto the iPad we’ll need the help of the iPhone Configuration Utility3. The iPhone Configuration Utility is used by corporate information technology engineers to manage the configuration parameters of corporate iOS devices. It allows them to create, maintain, encrypt, and push configuration profiles, track and install provisioning profiles and authorized applications, and capture device information including console logs. We’ll be using it to create a configuration profile to install the certificate.
Download, install and launch the iPhone Configuration Utility. Select the Configuration Profiles tab and then press Command-N on the keyboard to create a new profile.
Now you will import the cert you exported from Keychain. Select the Credentials tab and then click the + symbol. Find and select the digital certificate file to import. Enter the password you choose earlier when you exported the certificate.
Installing the cert
At this point attach your iOS device to your computer and you’ll see the device appear in the left hand of the configuration utility. Select the device and then click the Configuration Profiles tab. Find the profile you just created in the list and then click install to push the profile to your device.
On the screen of your iOS device you should see a prompt to confirm the installation of the profile. Once you click install to confirm, you are done.
New profiles entries will be visible in the General->Profiles section of the Settings app on your iOS device.
Configuring the email account
Now that you have a digital certificate on your iOS device you’ll need to configure Mail to use it. You’ll do this from the Mail, Contacts, Calendars tab in the Settings app on the iOS device. Select the email account from the list. Select the Account tab.
Enable the S/MIME switch and then turn on Sign and/or Encrypt depending on what you want to do and then tap Done. That’s it! You can now use the Mail app to send signed and encrypted email.
I’m simplifying a lot here. Read my original article for more detail on digital certificates. ↩
The process is most likely different on Windows but I’m a Mac user. ↩
Corporate command and control IT types use this tool to lock you out of all the cool stuff they are scared of. ↩