Email has become an indispensable communication tool for both businesses and individuals. As such, the security of email communication is of paramount importance. From ensuring the confidentiality of patient health information under HIPAA, to protecting personal data under GDPR, to securing financial information as per PCI DSS, compliance with email security requirements is both a legal obligation and a best practice.

However, simply adhering to the letter of these standards is not enough. With the evolving nature of cyber threats, it’s imperative that organizations remain vigilant, continuously update their security practices, and foster a culture of security awareness among their staff. The goal is not just compliance but the creation of a secure environment where the integrity, availability, and confidentiality of email data are preserved at all times.

What Is Email Security?

Email security is a broad term that refers to a variety of techniques and methodologies used to protect email accounts, content, and communication against unauthorized access, loss, or compromise. Cybercriminals and hackers are constantly on the prowl for weaknesses they can exploit, and email is often a prime target.

Email security involves various methods and procedures to keep email data private and secure. These measures include the use of strong passwords, encryption, secure email gateways, and regularly updating and patching email software to ensure vulnerabilities are not exploited.

Moreover, email security doesn’t only focus on the security of the email itself, but also on the security of the email infrastructure. It includes measures to secure the mail servers, the network connections to the mail servers, and the user’s end devices that receive the emails.

Common Email Security Measures Required by Compliance Standards

Many compliance standards have specific requirements related to email security. Below we provide specifics for HIPAA, GDPR, and PCI DSS. But first, let’s review some basic security measures that are common to these and many other compliance standards.

End-to-End Encryption

Most compliance standards emphasize the importance of encryption, particularly end-to-end encryption. This form of encryption ensures that only the sender and the intended recipient can read the email content, making it an essential tool for securing email communication.

Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is another common measure required by compliance standards. MFA requires users to provide two or more pieces of evidence to authenticate their identity when accessing their email accounts, adding an extra layer of security that makes it harder for unauthorized individuals to gain access.

Regular Audits and Monitoring

Regular audits and monitoring of email systems are another common requirement. Audits help organizations identify potential vulnerabilities and monitor the effectiveness of their security measures, while continuous monitoring enables them to detect and respond to threats in real time.

Data Retention and Backup

Another common requirement of compliance standards is proper data retention and backup strategies for business email. These strategies ensure that important emails can be recovered in the event of data loss, while also ensuring that unnecessary email data is not retained longer than necessary.

Staff Training and Awareness Programs

Finally, staff training and awareness programs are a typical requirement of compliance frameworks. This helps employees understand the importance of email security and equips them with the knowledge and skills to identify and respond to potential threats.

HIPAA Email Security Requirements

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) sets forth specific requirements for email security, especially for those handling protected health information (PHI).

Encryption of Emails Containing Protected Health Information (PHI)

Encryption is a method of converting information into an unreadable code to prevent unauthorized access. When it comes to emails containing PHI, encryption is crucial. HIPAA requires that all PHI transmitted over an open network must be encrypted to a standard that renders it unreadable, undecipherable, and unusable to unauthorized individuals.

Authentication and Access Controls

HIPAA also requires authentication measures to verify the identities of individuals who request access to PHI. This often involves the use of unique user identification, emergency access procedures, automatic logoff, and encryption and decryption procedures.

Regular Audits and Monitoring of Email Systems

Regular audits and monitoring are also a key part of HIPAA’s email security requirements. This involves keeping track of attempted access, successful and unsuccessful access, and any modifications or deletions of PHI. This helps in identifying any potential security threats and allows for swift action to mitigate them.

Retention and Backup of Email Data

HIPAA requires that PHI be retained for a certain period and that it can be restored in case of loss. For this, it’s important to have robust backup systems in place. This involves backing up email data regularly and ensuring that backups are secure.

Training for Staff on Secure Email Communication Protocols

Finally, staff training is an essential aspect of HIPAA’s email security requirements. It’s important that all staff members understand the importance of email security and are aware of the protocols in place to safeguard PHI. This can go a long way in preventing data breaches and ensuring compliance with HIPAA.

GDPR Email Security Requirements

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a regulation in EU law on data protection and privacy, also sets forth specific requirements for email security.

Requirement for Explicit Consent for Email Marketing

Under GDPR, explicit consent is required for email marketing. This means that organizations must obtain clear, affirmative consent from individuals before sending them marketing emails. It’s also important to keep records of these consents.

Use of Encryption and Pseudonymization Techniques

Similar to HIPAA, the GDPR also requires the use of encryption in certain circumstances. In addition to this, the GDPR encourages the use of pseudonymization techniques. This involves replacing identifiable data with artificial identifiers to protect individuals’ identities.

Data Breach Notification Rules Related to Email Data

GDPR has strict rules when it comes to data breaches. Organizations are required to notify the relevant supervisory authority of a breach within 72 hours of becoming aware of it, unless the breach is unlikely to result in a risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals. If the breach is high risk, the organization may also need to notify the individuals affected.

Limitation and Purpose Specification: Only Collecting Relevant Email Data

GDPR enforces a principle known as data minimization. This principle requires organizations to only collect personal data that’s necessary for a specified purpose. In the context of email security, this means only collecting relevant email data.

For example, if an organization is sending out a newsletter, it only needs the recipient’s email address, not their physical address or financial information. Limiting the amount of information collected can reduce the potential damage in case of a data breach.

Rights to Access, Rectify and Erase Personal Email Data

Another aspect of GDPR is the empowerment of individuals regarding their personal data. The regulation provides individuals with the right to access their data, rectify any inaccuracies, and erase their data.

In email security, this means that organizations should have mechanisms in place that allow individuals to review, correct, or delete their email data if they wish to do so. This reinforces the individual’s control over their data and indirectly strengthens email security by reducing unnecessary data storage.

PCI DSS Email Security Requirements

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is a set of security standards designed to ensure that all companies that accept, process, store, or transmit credit card information maintain a secure environment. Email communications often involve the transmission of such sensitive information, making PCI DSS highly relevant in the field of email security.

Encryption of Emails Containing Cardholder Data

One of the primary requirements of PCI DSS is the encryption of cardholder data during transmission over open, public networks. In the context of email security, this means that any emails containing cardholder data should be encrypted. Encryption converts the readable data into an unreadable format to anyone without the decryption key, ensuring the confidentiality of the information if intercepted during transmission.

Strong Access Controls and Authentication Mechanisms

PCI DSS also mandates strong access controls and authentication mechanisms. For email security, this could mean implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) for accessing email accounts, especially those used for financial transactions. Access controls can also involve restricting access to certain email accounts only to specific individuals or roles within an organization.

Regular Vulnerability Scans and Monitoring of Email Systems

To maintain a secure environment, PCI DSS requires regular vulnerability scans and monitoring of systems. This means that organizations should regularly check their email systems for potential weaknesses or vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cybercriminals. Regular monitoring can also help detect any unusual or suspicious activity in the email system in real-time.

Restriction of Cardholder Data to a Need-to-Know Basis

Another key requirement of PCI DSS is restricting access to cardholder data on a need-to-know basis. This principle of ‘least privilege’ minimizes the number of individuals who can access sensitive data, thereby reducing the risk of internal threats and data breaches.

Requirement for Security Policies and Staff Training Related to Email Handling

Finally, PCI DSS emphasizes the importance of having robust security policies in place and providing staff training related to handling email. This helps ensure that all employees are aware of their responsibilities in maintaining email security and know how to identify and respond to potential threats.


In conclusion, email security is a complex field that is strongly impacted by regulations and compliance standards. By adhering to compliance requirements and implementing the security measures discussed above, organizations can support compliance efforts while also significantly enhancing the security of their email communications.

Author Bio: Gilad David Maayan

Gilad David Maayan is a technology writer who has worked with over 150 technology companies including SAP, Imperva, Samsung NEXT, NetApp and Check Point, producing technical and thought leadership content that elucidates technical solutions for developers and IT leadership. Today he heads Agile SEO, the leading marketing agency in the technology industry.

LinkedIn: Linkedin