The linchpin of your digital identity: Keeping your email safe


Despite the advance of messaging apps, e-mails are still here. In fact, your email is usually the linchpin of your digital identity as we use that address to log in to many other services. That means protecting it against hacker attacks and other security risks is key. — Photo: Zacharie Scheurer/dpa

MUNICH: Few things online have lasted as long as email, with the first electronic letter sent back in 1971.

Hopefully, your inbox does not contain messages quite as old as that but given that emails are a big part of many people's lives, here are some tips for handling the onslaught and keeping your messages safe.

Bring your emails home: You can do this with an email client, a programme that offers ever more functions and is now much easier to set up than in the past, says Jörg Geiger from German IT magazine Chip.

If you have an account with a major email provider, you often only have to enter your email address and password. You usually won't have to worry about servers, ports and other cryptic information.

You can often combine several email accounts in one client, and have the option of filtering your messages or automatically sorting them.

Installing an email client frees up your messages from the mail provider's server and means they are backed up and archived on your computer. You can also download them to an external data carrier.

Geiger recommends Mozilla's free mail client Thunderbird, which, like the Firefox browser, is constantly being further developed and is available for Windows and MacOS as well as Linux.

But you can also use mail programmes such as Windows Mail or Apple Mail, which come with the Microsoft and Apple operating systems. You won't need to spend money on an email client.

Managing your email accounts: Many users have old email addresses that they very rarely use any more. If you don't want to have to keep logging in to check whether you have any new mails, you can use these two other functions in the mail client: automatic forwarding and fetching.

Most free email providers offer automatic forwarding, though Geiger points out this function does have its disadvantages: After the email has been forwarded, the sender field no longer shows the name of the original sender, but the address that forwarded the mail.

So a more elegant solution is an email import or collection service, in which a mail account retrieves messages from one or more other mailboxes after a certain period of time and stores them for you.

You can activate automatic forwarding or fetching, if the features are available, in your mail account settings.

Sending attachments: You cannot usually send large amounts of data via email. Gmail caps the size of attachments at 25MB in total, whereas other providers only allow even smaller attachments to be sent.

So you may need a workaround if you want to send a larger attachment, namely by using an online storage site, such as Google Drive or Dropbox. That way you only send the recipient a download link by email.

However, users should always consider what they send as an attachment, says Christian Dörr, who heads the Cybersecurity department at the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) in Germany.

"Technically speaking, emails are like postcards," he says. Encrypt any sensitive data, like a copy of an ID card, before you send it.

For more sensitive data, Dörr recommends a free service provided by Dutch telecommunications company KPN.

Users can upload up to 4GB of encrypted data via this provider without needing to register an account, you just need to set up a password.

When using transfer services that do not encrypt, use a free file archiver like 7-Zip first. Besides compressing files, it allows you to protect them with a password, meaning they are then safe to send via the transfer service.

If you want to send larger amounts of zipped and encrypted data, or files that do not require any special protection, without an account or registration, try using a service like Wetransfer.com (free for up to 2GB), Transfernow.net (free for up to 5GB) or Swisstransfer.com (free for up to 50GB).

Here, too, you receive a download link that you can share with the intended recipient after uploading the item you want to send. The providers delete your data a few days later.

Thinking about email security: Your email inbox is usually the linchpin of your digital identity as you use your address to log in to many other services. And emails with links to reset passwords for various services are usually sent to your main email account.

So if your mailbox is hacked, that is a major problem. Plus, it can be hard to know how to respond, or even if you have actually been hacked or not.

One indication is that previously unread emails are suddenly marked as read, or your filter rules have been changed or emails have been deleted, Dörr says.

Data leaks and successful cyber attacks targeting your provider can also compromise your user information. Not all services store their users' passwords in encrypted form, Dörr says, so anyone affected by leaks or hacks who has used the stolen password to log in to their mail account is an easy victim.

Protect your digital identity: Always pick a strong, unique password, especially for your email account. Activate and use two-factor authentication wherever it is available.

If you fear your email account may have been the victim of an attack, change your password immediately to "slam the door shut as quickly as possible," says Dörr.

Users can and should regularly check whether the email addresses and passwords they use for log-ins have fallen victim to hacker attacks or data leaks and can be found online. This can be done with the help of Haveibeenpwned.com, for example, a service that collects this leaked information in its database. – dpa

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