Is Gmail secure to send documents?

Is Gmail secure to send documents and other sensitive information?

It’s an important question, given how popular an email service it is.

There are various options when it comes to protecting your email messages on Gmail and making sending documents as secure as possible. 

Does Gmail provide encryption?

There are several different ways of sending a secure email in Gmail.

None of the native methods offer fully secure end-to-end encryption, but there are still some things you can do to reduce the risk of data breaches or hackers getting hold of your sensitive information.

The standard Gmail encryption protocol is called Transport Layer Security (TLS).

This makes it difficult for anyone to access your emails while they’re in transit.

However, it doesn’t control what happens once your email message has landed on the recipient’s email server. 

One downside of TLS is that it only works if both the sender and the recipient of the email message use an email service that supports it.

Luckily, most email providers do.

If you use a standard application like Yahoo Mail or Microsoft Outlook, you should be okay. 

So, how do you send an encrypted email from your Gmail account to someone whose email client doesn’t support TLS?

After all, if you want to do something like send a document for electronic signature, confidentiality is crucial.

How to send secure emails in Gmail

Let’s look at the options for sending a secure email in Gmail other than the TLS default:

For free Gmail accounts

Apart from TLS, free Gmail account users can opt for Gmail confidential mode, introduced in 2018.

The purpose of this particular email security measure is to control how the recipient accesses your email message.

When you compose your email message, you can engage Gmail confidential mode to prevent the recipient forwarding, copying, printing, or downloading it.

You can even set an expiration date after which the recipient will no longer be able to view the email.

You also have the option of creating an SMS passcode that the recipient has to enter to access the email message.

Already, you may be thinking that this sounds like a lot of effort for little obvious benefit. 

For one thing, sending emails this way doesn’t protect against someone simply taking a screenshot of the message and sharing it.

It gives no protection against attacks via common email account vulnerabilities either.

Add to that the fact that you have to go through enabling the process every time you compose and send an email.

And let’s face it — who wants to receive an email they can’t read without entering an SMS passcode?

It’s a great way of alienating your customers.

And that’s assuming you actually know the recipient’s phone number in the first place.

For paid Gmail accounts

The situation is better if you have a paid Gmail account such as with Google Workspace (formerly, G Suite).

Paid Gmail accounts support an enhanced security standard known as Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIME).

S/MIME offers a higher level of encryption than TLS because it encrypts the message itself rather than the channel.

For authentication purposes, both the sender and the recipient exchange user-specific keys. 

These are used to encrypt and decrypt the email message.

You can also see what level of encryption you’re currently using, whether that be S/MIME, TLS, or nothing at all.

Like with TLS, both the sender and recipient have to have an email client that supports S/MIME to be able to use it for sending a confidential email. 

How to send secure email attachments in Gmail

If you need to send attachments to do something like getting an electronic signature in Gmail, you may need more security.

If you use Gmail with a basic Google account, you have two options:

Upgrade your account

If you upgrade your Gmail account to a paid version, you’ll be able to use the S/MIME protocol.

S/MIME doesn’t just encrypt the content of an email message.

It encrypts attached files as well.

It does this using security certificates to digitally sign email messages so that the identity of the sender is authenticated.

It’s also possible to implement end-to-end encryption for Gmail via third-party tools.

For example, FlowCrypt does this, using the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption standard. It’s available as a Chrome extension as well as via Android and iPhone apps.

Use other email providers

Google Drive encrypts files securely within the Google ecosystem, but if you want to move files somewhere else, things get more complicated.

The reality is that Gmail strikes a tricky balance between security and convenience.

That’s one reason it’s one of the world’s most popular email providers.

It also means that if securing your sensitive information is a priority, it may not be the best choice.

There are email providers out there that offer end-to-end encryption, such as ProtonMail.

This means that only the intended recipient can see the content of the email.

ProtonMail gives you a dedicated ProtonMail address that you can use via the web or its Android or iOS apps.

The company doesn’t gather IP addresses or any other confidential data.

For sending attachments, you might want to consider a cloud-based storage solution or a secure document management platform like PandaDoc.

These allow for encrypted sharing of files in a convenient, user-friendly way, as well — in the case of PandaDoc — as easy collaboration on documents and files.

A more secure way of sending documents on Gmail

So is Gmail secure to send documents? It depends on the level of security you need.

For some purposes, the in-built TLS protocol will be enough.

For others, accessing an ordinary Gmail account with a strong password alone won’t cut it.

You may prefer the peace of mind that comes from using public key cryptography standards or an end-to-end encryption plugin.

Whatever you decide, it’s good to know there are plenty of options to foil those hacks and phishing attacks without the need for complex permissions rules.