By Joanna Fletcher
Most businesses today use email so much that it can truly be called mission-critical. Email security is becoming increasingly complex as attackers try any conceivable method to get users to release valuable information. Yet every day people set up and use Gmail, YahooMail or other Web-based email addresses as their primary method of communication. Just how secure accessing your email through the Internet, even when you own the domain, requires serious consideration.
Old School Email
All email does travel over the Internet. Using a program such as Microsoft Outlook, you set up your email by telling the program which server your email is held on, and it uses the Internet to go and check your mailbox or send mail on your behalf. This is known as desktop mail, or an email client.
This system is reasonably secure because encryption is used and because you need to be on your own machine to access your mailbox. Your machine usually has login and passwords, anti-virus software, firewalls and the like, to prevent people from getting any of your information, including your email.
Email to Go
Being able to access your email wherever you happen to be, from any computer, is a dream come true for today's business person, who will probably check email and manage email several times a day from multiple locations. It seems as simple and logical a feature as calling in to your voicemail from any phone to get your messages.
However, there are several points of concern here. The first is the security of the network, computer, and server that you are using. Servers store lots of information and public access networks vary in their attention to their server security. Computers can store every keystroke you make, leaving your password vulnerable and wireless networks are easy to hack and track.
History of Attacks
Serious security problems were discovered and exploited in Microsoft Hotmail in 2001, when hackers discovered a simple way to log in to any account without a password and proceeded to compromise thousands of accounts. Web mail developers have been alerted to security issues and now require more stringent user authentication before allowing access to email via the Web.
Desktop or Web Mail?
When you use desktop email, the messages are stored on your computer; Web mail stores messages on the server. Good arguments can be made for the security and vulnerability of both places. Is your computer's hard drive backed up consistently? Could your Web server fail without warning? Each individual must balance the risks based on their unique needs and competencies.
As long as your hosting company or tech guy is aware of the issues and making sure that all email is strongly encrypted, Web mail is no more insecure than any other form of email access, assuming that the accessing computer and network are secure as well. The seductive convenience of Web mail usually trumps any lingering security concerns.
About the Author
Joanna Fletcher is a netizen who has lived, worked, and played in virtual space for most of her life. Her entrepreneurial flair is topped only by her tolerance for failure.