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E-mail security issues

Here are some basic precautions to take to keep e-mail secure.

E-mail security issues
By Adesh Rampat

E-mail is now the most widely used method of communication between businesses and individuals; unfortunately, it is not the safest and most reliable. Virus-infected e-mails and wiretapping on network lines are the main reasons that affect the reliability of e-mail.

Encrypting Messages

  • Preventing e-mail messages from getting into the wrong hands can be avoided by encrypting the information being transmitted. To encrypt a message, the user needs to have a copy of the intended recipient's digital certificate.

  • If the user wishes to send an encrypted message and does not have the intended recipient's digital certificate, the best and the simplest way is to ask the intended recipient to send a signed message so that the e-mail client can encrypt the message according to recipient's cipher (cryptographic algorithm) preferences.

  • Most importantly always ensure that you have updated security patches for the e-mail client software.


  • Viruses and other types of malicious code are often spread as attachments to electronic mail messages. Before opening any attachments it is advisable the user knows the source of the attachment.

  • If the user must open an attachment before the source can be verified, do so in an isolated environment. If the user is unsure of how to proceed, then it is best to contact the network administrator.

  • Do not run programs of unknown origin, regardless of who sent the program.

  • It is also advisable that users do not send programs of unknown origin to friends or coworkers simply because they are amusing -- it might be a Trojan horse.

The above looks at some guidelines in preventing viruses from replicating to other workstations on a network or even destroying data on a hard drive. However, although users may 'try' to follow the above guidelines Virus-infected e-mail always tends to slip by, thereby affecting the entire network.

For corporations, the installation of antivirus software on the e-mail server as well as on workstations can help in implementing these guidelines.

When planning to set up antivirus distribution via the network the network administrator should include the following on his/her lists:

ALL network servers in addition to your e-mail server. Although network servers are supposed to be secured physically when you are installing software or performing an update locally, there may be a chance that an infected file can enter the server and then replicate from there. The network administrator will need to select a network server that will act as the "antivirus update distribution server." In most cases, this server can be a mid- to high-end server that you may have already setup. Avoid using the e-mail server because you may not want too much disk activity occurring here.

Include ALL workstations to your list, as well. This will help in detecting and removing any virus that may be introduced via floppy disk.

What about the virus hoaxes? How can a user be sure that a virus warning is a hoax? Most of the antivirus software manufacturers post regular updates on virus hoaxes on their Web sites. It is recommended that users visit these sites frequently for regular updates.

As part of its company policy, organizations should desist users from sending false alarms about viruses to users of the network and in general should desist from sending mass e-mail.

About the author:

Adesh Rampat has 10 years of experience with network and IT administration. He is a member of the Association of Internet Professionals, the Institute for Network Professionals and the International Webmasters Association. He has also lectured extensively on a variety of topics.

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Related Book

Internet and E-mail Security Kit : Defeat Hackers and Viruses and Increase Network Security
By Syngress Publishing
Online Price: $110.00
Publisher Name: Syngress, Media
Date published: March 2001

This was last published in September 2001

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