How to encrypt email with PGP & Enigmail

Table of Contents

Thunderbird or Mailvelope or standalone?

Your first choice is between using encryption with Thunderbird as a standalone email client, or installing Mailvelope as a plugin for Firefox or Chrome to use with webmail such as Gmail or Yahoo mail. If you're only accustomed to using webmail, then configuring and learning Thunderbird may be extra up-front work, and you may prefer to just install the Mailvelope plugin. But once you get it all set up, encryption is more transparent and easier to use in Thunderbird.

Mailvelope

This guide does not yet cover Mailvelope installation. You can watch a short video tutorial or visit the Mailvelope website for more information.

GPG4USB

Another option is a standalone utility called GPG4USB. Though it requires copy and pasting to encrypt and decrypt messages, it's easier to set up and can be used on any computer via a portable USB drive. Go straight to the project page, or read a tutorial.

Thunderbird

Thunderbird Prerequisites

Before configuring encryption, you must install:

  1. Thunderbird: If you already have it installed, make sure it's the latest version by going to Help->About Thunderbird. Configure Thunderbird with one or more of your mail accounts - it should provide an easy wizard. If you have any trouble, visit Mozilla's guide to manual configuration.
  2. GPG (GNU Privacy Guard)
    • Windows: download and install the latest version. Any of the variants will work; "Vanilla" is the smallest. The default settings should be fine.
    • Mac OSX: download and install the latest version. The default settings should be fine.
    • Linux: install gnupg2 from your package manager.
  3. Enigmail: In Thunderbird, go to Tools->Add-ons. In the "Search all add-ons" box at upper right, search for Enigmail. If you don't see it, make sure the "Search" filter is set to "Available Add-ons", not "My Add-Ons". Install Enigmail. After restarting Thunderbird, you'll be prompted to configure Enigmail. See the next section.

Configure Enigmail for Thunderbird

Our following quick guide should get you up and running. For more details, you can read the Enigmail Handbook.

  1. After first installing the Enigmail Add-on and restarting Thunderbird, you'll get an option to configure Enigmail by clicking "Start setup now." Or, at any time after installing the Enigmail plugin, you can start Thunderbird and go to Enigmail->Setup Wizard.
  2. Pick "I prefer a standard configuration".
  3. Select the email account you want as your primary user - you can add others later.
  4. Generate a new key using the default options - be sure to use a strong passphrase, and be sure to remember it. Your key will be useless if you forget your passphrase.
  5. The key generation may take 10 minutes, or possibly even longer.
  6. When done generating the new key, it will offer you the option of creating your revocation certificate, which will allow you to mark your key as withdrawn in case you lose it or it is compromised in the future. Fill in the passphrase you just created, then save the file in a place you can access it even if you lose your computer, such as a USB drive stored somewhere else. Make sure no potential adversaries can access the file.
  7. Click "OK", "Next" and "Finish"
  8. To share your public key so that other people can easily download it and send encrypted messages to you:
    • In Thunderbird, go to Enigmail->Key Management.
    • Right-click on your key and pick "Upload public keys to keyserver"
  9. Important: to back up your private and public keys, to be able to read your encrypted email even if you lose your computer or hard drive data:
    • In Thunderbird, go to Enigmail->Key Management.
    • Right-click on your key and pick "Export Keys to File."
    • Pick "Export Secret Keys"
    • Save the file in a place you can access it even if you lose your computer, such as a USB drive stored somewhere else. Make sure no potential adversaries can access the file.

Now you can let people know you have encryption set up. They can download your key from the keyserver, or when you compose an email you can click "Attach My Public Key":

Reading Encrypted Emails

If someone sends you an email encrypted with your public key, when you open it in Thunderbird you will be prompted for your private key password. Once you enter it, you can read the email as usual.

You can tell Thunderbird to remember your password so you don't have to enter it every time:

  • In Thunderbird, go to Enigmail->Preferences
  • Set "Remember passphrase for ### minutes of idle time". For example, setting 120 will mean you're prompted if you read or send an encrypted email after 2 hours of not using encryption. (If you restart Thunderbird or your computer, you will have to enter the passphrase again.)

Encrypting Email

To send encrypted messages to someone else who has set up encryption, you must first import his or her public key. Once you have imported the key, you can compose a new email to the recipient, and it should be automatically encrypted.

Importing Keys

You only need to import each contact's key once. You can import in different ways, depending on how the contact has shared the key:

1. From a public keyserver

If the person has uploaded his or her key to a public keyserver:

  • In Thunderbird, go to Enigmail->Key Management
  • Go to Keyserver->Search For Keys
  • Enter the name or email address of someone you know who has encryption set up. and click OK.
    • If the system returns multiple keys for the same email address, it may be because the person lost the private key or forgot the passphrase, so had to generate a new keypair. But you should be especially careful to verify with the person that you download the correct key in case one or more of the keys is a fake.
  • Highlight the key you want, then click OK to import it.

2. From an email attachment

If the person sent you a key as an email attachment:

  • Save the received key to a temporary location
  • In Thunderbird, go to Enigmail->Key Management
  • Go to File->Import Key From File
  • Browse to the key and select it for importing

Verifying a Key

It is important to make sure you have the correct public key for people. An adversary could attempt to send you fake keys, to to trick you into sending emails the adversary can intercept and read. So, after you import someone's public key, you should verify it:

  • Have a conversation with the person ― ideally by phone or in person. If you're confident in setting it up, you could also use a secure online channel (an email exchange would not yet be secure, since you haven't verified the key!)
  • Both of you: in Thunderbird, go to Enigmail->Key Management
  • Both of you: double-click the person's key.
  • Read the Fingerprint value and make sure it's the same for both of you.
  • Once you're satisfied, you can sign the key to vouch that the key matches the owner:
    • In the window where you verified the Fingerprint, click "Select Action"
    • Choose "Sign Key"
      • Check "I have done very careful checking" if you know for sure the person is who he or she claims - for example, you have known the person well for years, or have checked a government ID.
      • Check "I have done casual checking" if you aren't sure of the person's identity
      • Click "OK"
  • Send the signed key to the owner:
    • Compose a new email to the owner
    • Go to Enigmail->Attach Public Key
    • Choose the person's key
    • Click "send"
    • Send the email
  • If the owner wants to make the signing information public, to build the web of trust, he or she should:
    • Save the received key to a temporary location
    • In Thunderbird, go to Enigmail->Key Management
    • Go to File->Import Key From File
    • Browse to the key and select it for importing
    • Once the key is imported locally, highlight his or her key and go to Keyserver->Upload public keys.

Setting Trust Levels

Optionally, you can set the degree to which you trust the other person to carefully verify Fingerprints and identities. This information is only stored locally; no one else will see what level of trust you have set. This is used by Enigmail to judge how much it should trust keys from strangers: if several people you trust have vouced for the strangers' keys, Enigmail will trust them.

  • In Thunderbird, go to Enigmail->Key Management
  • Double-click the person's key.
  • Click "Select action"
  • Pick "Set owner trust"
  • Set the trust level and click "OK"

Adding Identities

If you want to associate more than one email account with your keypair:

  • In Thunderbird, go to Enigmail->Key Management
  • Right-click your key and pick "Manage User IDs"
  • For each email address you want to add, click Add
    • fill in the identity name (your name, or perhaps an organization associated with the account)
    • fill in the email address
    • Click "OK"
  • Upload your public key to the keyserver
FaLang translation system by Faboba
Email icon
Subscribe
Get our latest news with email alerts from our International Newsletter, Blog, News Service, and individual chapters.

Subscribe

”Our allegiance lies with the real world, with real human beings and real forests, and we will fight to protect them.”
-Max Wilbert

“I love recognizing the ways in which wildness, no matter how thoroughly civilized a place may be, is constantly working and toiling. I love thinking about civilization falling away as that wild force eats through it.”
-Dillon Thomson

“The most pressing problem facing the world is the iron heel of civilization on the neck of human and non-human communities.”
-Max Wilbert

”We need people from all walks of life doing all kinds of things to support this movement and perpetuate the mentality and actions of resistance.”
-Sam Leah

“I love the land where I live, where thick mists drift between trees and rocks and rain drips from moss and flows down mountainsides.”
-Max Wilbert

"I don't think it is violence to defend that which you love."
-Saba Malik

"DGR is our last, best hope."
-Dillon Thomson

“DGR understands that resistance is not a monoculture and that everyone and every kind of action is needed.“
-Sam Leah

”If you are terrorized or mesmerized, you are not alive. Rejoin the living, join the resistance.”
-Jennifer Murnan

“Every kind of resource extraction is an act of domination and control and is a statement that says the way of life we have created for ourselves—the shiny, fast moving, plastic way of life—is more important than life itself.“
-Sam Leah

Meet DGR's Staff

Mon, Nov 11 2019
How to Browse the Internet Anonymously
Anytime you browse the internet, your ISP (Internet Service Provider), government agencies such as the NSA and GCHQ, and most of the websites you visit are tracking everything you do. This data is often used to generate profiles of individuals preferences, [...]

Continue Reading

Fri, Nov 08 2019
1.7 Million Acres in Nevada Open for Fracking
Written and photographed by Justin McAffee On a warm late-summer day, an old friend and I drove down some 50 miles of gravel road through a remote part of Nevada’s Tule Desert. We spotted a flock of golden eagles, and one even landed on a nearby Joshua [...]

Continue Reading

Wed, Nov 06 2019
Rainforest Guardian Murdered in Brazil
Image: Sarah Shenker, Survival International by Liam Campbell Paulo Paulino Guajajara, known as Kwahu, has been murdered by loggers in a part of the Amazon currently occupied by the Brazilian government. Equipped with only rudimentary weapons and body [...]

Continue Reading

Wed, Nov 06 2019
A Practical Manual for Building a Resistance Movement
The DGR organization is largely based on the book Deep Green Resistance, which was written by Lierre Keith, Aric McBay, and Derrick Jensen and released in spring 2011. Synopsis of the Book Deep Green Resistance< starts where the environmental movement [...]

Continue Reading

Mon, Nov 04 2019
London, Nov. 30th: By Any Means Necessary
Location: Conway Hall (25 Red Lion Square, WC1R 4RL London, UK) Date: Saturday November 30th Time: 7pm-10pm (doors @ 6:30) Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/o/27033824321 At this pivotal moment in history, is nonviolent direct action the most effective [...]

Continue Reading

Fri, Nov 01 2019
The Legal System Will Not Save the Planet
By Max Wilbert As the world moves further into a state of climate crisis, it’s imperative that we study and critique the strategies being proposed to address greenhouse gas emissions, and develop our own strategies based on rigorous assessment of their [...]

Continue Reading

Thu, Oct 31 2019
Forget Climate Change
by Joey Moncarz Let’s forget about climate change, because it’s a distraction. Of course it’s real, it’s devastating and it will wipe out most life on the planet, but let’s move on. The reason we can move on is that we really [...]

Continue Reading

Wed, Oct 30 2019
Screens: Everyone’s an Addict
Written by a student of the Deep Green Bush-School. The DGBS is a participatory, technology-free, evolutionary and revolutionary school located in Aotearoa (colonized name New Zealand) for ages 5-18 designed to raise intelligent, healthy, mature, responsible [...]

Continue Reading

Mon, Oct 28 2019
How Environmentalists Can Become Ecological Special Forces
Special forces and special operations forces (SOF) are military units trained to conduct special operations. NATO defines special operations as “military activities conducted by specially designated, organized, trained, and equipped forces, manned with [...]

Continue Reading

Fri, Oct 25 2019
The Creation of Patriarchy
Editors note: Gerda Lerner (1920-2013) was a historian, author and teacher. She was a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a visiting scholar at Duke University. Lerner was one of the founders of the field of [...]

Continue Reading

See All Stories