Thunderbird, Enigmail and OpenPGP for Windows - Secure Email
Mozilla Thunderbird is free and open source software that allows you to exchange and store email for multiple accounts with multiple service providers. Enigmail and GnuPG improve the security and privacy of your email correspondence by adding support for OpenPGP end-to-end encryption to Thunderbird. They also allow you to sign your messages digitally and verify the digital signatures of others.
Thunderbird is a free and open source, cross-platform email client for sending, receiving and storing email. An email client is an application that lets you download and manage your messages — from multiple accounts with multiple providers — without a browser.
Gnu Privacy Guard (GPG) is free and open source software capable of encrypting, decrypting and digitally signing messages and files. It also generates and manages the public and private keys needed to do so.
Enigmail is a Thunderbird add-on that allows you to access the encryption and authentication features provided by GnuPG, which must be installed for Enigmail to work.
1.0 Things you should know about Thunderbird before you start
You will need at least one email account to use Thunderbird. If you want to create a new account to use with Thunderbird, refer to the RiseUp guide.
Like all email clients, Thunderbird makes a copy of your messages available on your computer. This includes the emails you send as well as those you receive. As a result, it is particularly important that you implement device encryption (such as BitLocker) when you decide to use Thunderbird.
Thunderbird cannot protect your device if you open malicious attachments or click on malicious links. Do not open unsolicited attachments and exercise caution when clicking on links that were sent to you by email. Learn how to Protect your device from Malware and Hackers guide.
Thunderbird is available for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X and GNU/Linux. Securely managing multiple email accounts is a complex task, and we strongly recommend Thunderbird for this purpose. However, if you prefer to use an alternative we recommend the following free and open source tools:
Claws Mail is available for GNU Linux and Microsoft Windows
Sylpheed is available for Mac OS X, GNU Linux and Microsoft Windows
To add an email account to Thunderbird, follow the steps below.
Step 1.LaunchThunderbird and the following window will appear (once you have set [e-mail] as default):
Figure 1: First launch of Thunderbird
Step 2.Click[Skip this and use my existing email] to open the Mail Account Setup screen.
Figure 2: The Mail Account Setup screen
Step 3.Type the name, email address and password that correspond to the account you wish to access using Thunderbird.
Step 4.Uncheck the box next to [Remember my password].
Step 5.Click[Continue]. Thunderbird will check the configuration of the email service you have entered.
Figure 3: Thunderbird after verifying the configuration of an email service
You probably want to leave "IMAP (remote folders)" selected. IMAP stores the master copy of your email folders (including the Inbox, Drafts, Templates, Sent and Trash folders) on the server and makes a local copy on your device. This allows you to access the same messages from multiple devices while keeping your folders in sync. (POP, on the other hand, retrieves your messages from the server and stores them on the first device to which they are downloaded. This does not mean they are actually deleted from the server, but it does make it much more difficult to access your email from multiple devices.)
Important: Make sure that both the Incoming and Outgoing information shown on the screen above display SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) or STARTTLS (Start Transport Layer Security). Either one indicates that your email provider supports basic encryption.
Step 6.Click[Done] to create your account and enter the main Thunderbird interface.
Figure 4: The main Thunderbird interface
Note: To add another email account, clickFile in the menu bar and select[New > Existing Mail Account]. Then, simply repeat the steps above.
Each time you launch Thunderbird, you will be asked to enter the passphrase for each account you have added.
Figure 5: The Mail Server Password Required screen
Step 7.Type your passphrase.
Figure 6: Entering a password into the Mail Server Password Required screen
Step 8. Click[OK] to sign in to your account(s) using Thunderbird.
Thunderbird allows you to include colours, fonts, images and other formatting in the emails you write. It does this by sending messages that include HTML — the same technology used in webpages — rather than just basic text. It also has the ability to display HTML messages sent to you by others. Unfortunately, viewing HTML email can expose you to some of the attacks used to target web browsers. And writing HTML email sometimes prevents GnuPG encryption from working properly.
To display HTML emails as plain text, follow the steps below:
Step 1.Click to display the Thunderbird Menu.
Step 2.Select[View > Message Body As > Plain Text].
Figure 1: Disabling the display of HTML email
To write email in plain text, follow the steps below:
Step 1.Click to display the Thunderbird Menu.
Step 2.Select[Options > Account Settings].
Figure 2: Selecting Account Settings on Thunderbird
Step 3.Select[Composition & Addressing] under your email address.
Figure 3: The Composition & Addressing screen with Compose messages in HTML format unchecked
Step 4.Uncheck the [Compose messages in HTML] box.
To view or remove email account passphrases stored on your computer, click[Saved Passwords].
Figure 4: The Saved Passwords window
To remove all of the passphrases saved by Thunderbird, click[Remove All]. You can also remove individual passphrases.
Important: We recommend that you protect your passphrases using a tool designed specifically for that purpose. See KeePassX for more information. However, if you do intend to allow Thunderbird to remember them for you, it is extremely important that you set a master password so that Thunderbird can encrypt your other passwords. In fact, even if you do not want Thunderbird to store your email account passphrases, you might still want to set a master password. Doing so will ensure that Thunderbird encrypts any passphrase you might accidentally ask it to save. If you do this, be sure to remember your master password or record it somewhere safe (like in a KeePassX database). And be aware that Thunderbird will ask you for that master password every time you restart the application.
Step 5.Check the [Use a master password] box to activate the following screen:
Figure 5: Change Master Password window
Step 6.Type a strong passphrase into both fields and click[OK].
Cookies contain information that is sent to your browser by the websites you visit. When you return to those sites, you send the corresponding cookies back to them, along with your request for content. Cookies are used for a number of reasons. For example, websites that require you to sign in often use them to remember whether or not you have done so. But cookies can also be used to track your online activities.
Thunderbird accepts cookies primarily to support RSS feeds and newsgroups, not for email. We recommend that you disable support for cookies in Thunderbird. If this prevents you from using a feature of Thunderbird that you need, you can always go back and enable it.
You can tell Thunderbird not to accept cookies by following the steps below:
Step 1.Click to activate the Thunderbird menu bar.
Step 2.Select[Options > Options].
Step 3.Click the Privacy tab.
Figure 1: The Privacy tab
Step 4.Uncheck the following boxes:
Allow remote content in messages. (You can still enable remote content on a per-message basis.)
GNU Privacy Guard (GnuPG or GPG) is free and open source encryption software developed by the GNU Project. It is compliant with the OpenPGP standard and was designed to inter-operate with Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), a commercial equivalent developed by Phil Zimmermann and maintained by Symantec.
Enigmail is a Thunderbird add-on that allows you to access GnuPG's encryption features from within Thunderbird.
GnuPG relies on a form of public-key cryptography that requires each user to generate his or her own pair of keys. This key pair can be used to encrypt, decrypt and sign digital content such as email messages. It includes a private key and a public key:
Your private key is extremely sensitive. Anyone who managed to obtain a copy of this key would be able to read encrypted content that was meant only for you. They could also sign messages so they appeared to have come from you. Your private key is, itself, encrypted to a passphrase that you will choose when generating your key pair. You should choose a strong passphrase and take care not to let anyone gain access to your private key. You will use your private key to decrypt messages sent to you by those who have a copy of your public key.
Your public key is meant to be shared with others and can not be used to read an encrypted message or fake a signed one. Once you have a correspondent’s public key, you can begin sending her encrypted messages. Only she will be able to decrypt and read these messages because only she has access to the private key that matches the public key you are using to encrypt them. Similarly, in order for someone to send you encrypted email, they must obtain a copy of your public key. It is important to verify that the public key you are using to encrypt email actually does belong to the person with whom you are trying to communicate. If you or your correspondent are tricked into encrypting email with the wrong public key, your conversation will not be secure.
GnuPG and Enigmail also let you attach digital signatures to your messages. If you sign a message using your private key, any recipient with a copy of your public key can verify that it was sent by you and that its content was not tampered with. Similarly, if you have a correspondent's public key, you can verify his digital signatures.
To generate a GnuPGkey pair, follow the steps below.
Step 1.Click and select[Enigmail > Setup Wizard]. This will open the GnuPG Setup Wizard.
Figure 1: The Enigmail Setup Wizard
Step 2.Select[Start setup now] and click[Next].
Step 3.Select[I prefer a standard configuration (recommended for beginners)] and click[Next].
Figure 2: Configuring Enigmail
Step 4.Choose a strong passphrase and type it into the two fields shown in the following screen:
Figure 3: Choosing a passphrase for your GnuPG key pair
Note: This passphrase will be used to encrypt your private key, which is what allows you to sign emails you send and decrypt emails you receive. It should not be shared with anyone. As such, it is important that you choose a strong passphrase and that you do not forget it. You can learn more from the Create and maintain strong passphrases guide.
Figure 4: Entering a passphrase for your GnuPG key pair
Step 5.Click[Next] to generate a pair of encryption keys.
Wait until the key generation is completed.
Figure 5: Key creation
When Enigmail has finished generating your GnuPG key pair, it will let you know, and a Generate Revocation Certificate button will appear.
Figure 6: Enigmail ready to generate a revocation certificate
You should generate a revocation certificate so you can let others know when a particular key is no longer valid. This may happen if you:
Stop using a keypair
Lose a private key
Forget the passphrase for a private key
Believe a private key has been compromised or shared with others
It is particularly important that you generate a revocation certificate if you plan to upload your public key to a keyserver. There is no other way to "delete" a key once you have uploaded it, and you do not want old or compromised keys sitting around on a keyserver confusing people.
Step 6.Click[Create Revocation Certificate].
*Figure 7: Enigmail asking for your login passphrase
Step 7.Type the passphrase you chose when creating your GnuPGkey pair.
Step 8.Choose a file name and location for your revocation certificate.
Figure 8: Choosing a name and location for your revocation certificate
In this example, we will put the revocation certificate in the Documents folder, but you can store it anywhere safe.
Step 9.Click[Save] to display Enigmail's warning about the importance of keeping your revocation certificate safe.
Figure 9: Revocation certificate warning
Step 10.Click[OK] to return to the Setup Wizard.
Figure 10: The Enigmail Setup Wizard
Step 11.Click[Next] to complete the key generation process.
Figure 11: The Enigmail Thank you screen
Step 12.Click[Finish] to exit the Setup Wizard and return to Thunderbird.
4.2.2 Configure Enigmail to work with your email account
You must enable Enigmail for each email account in Thunderbird, through which you want to send and receive GnuPG encrypted email. To do so, follow the steps below.
Step 1.Click and select[Options > Account Settings].
Figure 1: Opening Thunderbird's Account Settings
This will open the Account Settings screen.
Figure 2: Thunderbird's Account Settings screen
Step 2.Click[OpenPGP Security] under the account with which you want to send and receive encrypted email.
Figure 3: Enigmail's OpenPGP settings for an email account in Thunderbird
This screen allows you to set various Enigmail preferences related to email encryption. If you generated your GnuPGkey pair by following the instructions in the previous section – after adding a single account to Thunderbird – that account should already be configured to work with Enigmail. It should also be linked to the key pair you generated. If it is not, continue with Step 3, below. If it is, you can skip to Figure 6.
Step 3.Check the box next to [Enable OpenPGP support (Enigmail) for this identity].
Step 4.Click[Select Key...] to open the Select OpenPGP Key for Encryption window.
Figure 4: Enigmail's Select OpenPGP Key for Encryption screen
Step 5.Select the key pair you want to use for this email account.
Figure 5: Selecting a key pair for a particular email account in Thunderbird
Step 6.Click[Select Key...] to link this key pair with this email account and return to the OpenPGP Security settings screen.
Below, we recommend two optional, non-default settings.
Figure 6: Configuring Enigmail for this email account
Step 7.Check the [Use PGP/MIME by default] box.
With this box checked, Enigmail is better able to encrypt email attachments, including their file names.
Step 8.Check the [sign encrypted messages] box.
With this box checked, Enigmail will digitally sign all encrypted email sent through this account unless you specifically tell it not to. Unencrypted messages will remain unsigned by default.
This will activate your Enigmail Key Management screen.
Figure 2: Enigmail's Key Management screen
Step 2.Double-click the name of your key pair to view or edit its properties.
Figure 3: Key pair properties
The Key Properties window displays important information about your GnuPGkey pair:
Key ID: The key ID shown above for firstname.lastname@example.org is 0x89CD0FFB. (This corresponds to the last eight digits of the full key fingerprint below.)
Key fingerprint: The key fingerprint for the same key pair is 8614 C809 3DDF F5D3 756A 8308 F391 86F1 89CD 0FFB. Your key fingerprint is not something you need to keep secret. In fact, it is meant to be shared.
Expiration date: This key pair will no longer work after 30 May, 2021.
Before others can send you encrypted email, they must have a copy of your public key. You can learn more about sharing keys in Section 4.3. Your key fingerprint is an important part of how others can make sure that the key they have for you is actually yours. We discuss key verification in Section 4.4.
(Optional) Changing the expiration date of a key pair
If you need to change the expiration date of your GnuPGkey pair, follow the steps below. This is most useful as a way to extend the expiration date, as it approaches, if you need more time to generate a new key pair and inform those with whom you communicate using encrypted email.
Step 1.Click[Change] next to the expiry date of your key pair.
Figure 1: Changing the expiration date of a key pair
This will activate the change expiration date screen shown below.
Figure 2: Enigmail Change Expiration Date screen
Note: The number of years shown at the bottom of the screen does not necessarily match the current expiration date. If you click [OK] without changing anything, you may temporarily reduce the life-span of your key pair.
Step 2.Type the number of years, starting from today, that you would like this key pair to function.
Figure 3: Changing the expiration date of a GnuPG key pair
Step 3.Click[OK] to enter the passphrase for your private key.
Figure 4: Entering a private key passphrase
Step 4.Type your passphrase.
Step 5.Click[OK] to change the expiration date of your GnuPGkey pair.
(Optional) Changing the passphrase for a private key
We recommend changing your passphrase from time to time just in case it has been compromised without your knowledge. If you would like to change the passphrase that protects your private key, follow the steps below.
Step 1.Click[Select action...] and select[Change passphrase].
Figure 1: Changing a passphrase
Step 2.Type your current passphrase for your private key.
Figure 2: Entering a private key passphrase
Step 4.Type your new passphrase and click[OK].
Figure 3: Entering a new private key passphrase
Step 5.Re-enter your new passphrase and click[OK].
Figure 4: Re-entering a new private key passphrase
Before you can start sending encrypted email messages to one another, you and your correspondents need to exchange public keys. You also need to confirm the validity of any key you receive by confirming that it really belongs to the person you believe sent it.
You should now verify that the key you have imported actually belongs to the person you believe sent it to you. This is a process that you (and your email correspondents) should go through for each public key you receive. Once you verify the key, you will sign it so that GnuPG knows that it is valid.
To validate your correspondent's public key, contact him using a means of communication that allows you to be absolutely certain that you are talking to the right person. In-person meetings are best, but voice and video conversations are acceptable if you are confident you can recognise his voice or appearance. This conversation does not have to be confidential, as long as you refrain from discussing sensitive topics. You will be exchanging public key fingerprints, which do not need to be kept secret.
Both you and your correspondent should verify the fingerprints of the public keys you have exchanged. A fingerprint is a unique series of numbers and letters that identifies a GnuPGkey pair. You can use the EnigmailKey Management screen to view the fingerprint of the key pairs you have generated and of the public keys you have imported.
To view the fingerprint of a particular key pair, follow the steps below.
Step 1.Click and select[Enigmail > Key Management].
Step 2.Double-click a key pair to open the EnigmailKey Properties window.
Figure 2: Enigmail's Key Properties screen
In the Key Properties window, you will be able to see the fingerprint of the selected key pair. For example, the fingerprint of email@example.com is 8614 C809 3DDF F5D3 756A 8303 F391 86F1 89CD 0FFB.
Your correspondent should carry out these steps as well. So, to verify fingerprints:
Read the fingerprint of your keypair to your correspondent
Have him verify that the fingerprint he has for your public key matches what you just told him
Have your correspondent read you the fingerprint for his keypair
Verify that the fingerprint you have for his public key matches what he just told you
If the fingerprints don't match, exchange public keys again and repeat the process.
Note: Because key fingerprints are not themselves sensitive, you can easily write down the fingerprint that your correspondent reads off to you. Then, when you have more time, you can verify that it matches the fingerprint you have for his public key using Enigmail's Key Management screen. (This is also why some people print their GnuPG fingerprints on their business cards.)
Once you have verified a correspondent's key, you should sign it. This will tell Enigmail to remember that you consider this key valid.
Important: If you sign some else's public key and make your signed copy of their key publicly available, it can easily expose the fact that you exchange sensitive information with that person. To prevent this from happening by accident, always check the Local signature box when signing a correspondent's public key.
You can sign a validated public key by following the steps below.
Step 1.Click and select[Enigmail > Key Management].
Step 2.Right-click the public key you want to sign and select[Sign Key].
Figure 1: Signing someone else's public key
Step 3. Make sure your key pair is selected next to Key for signing.
Figure 2: Enigmail Key Sign screen
Step 4.Click[I have done very careful checking].
Note: Other options (such as I have not checked at all) may not allow you to send encrypted messages to the owner of this key. And, due to a bug in Enigmail, it may be difficult to change this setting later. We therefore recommend that you always select I have done very careful checking when signing a correspondent's public key.
Step 5.Check the [Local signature (cannot be exported)] box.
Important: Unless you are very confident with GnuPG – and know for a fact that the owner of this public key wants your signature of his key to be public – you should check this box.
Figure 3: Entering the passphrase for your private key to sign someone else's public key
Step 7.Type the passphrase for your private key.
Step 8.Click[OK] to sign this public key. This will tell Enigmail that you have verified the identity of its owner, which will allow you to send her encrypted email.
Once you and your correspondent have successfully imported, validated and signed each other's public keys, you can begin exchanging encrypted messages.
You can encrypt the content of your email messages by following the steps below:
Step 1. In Thunderbird, click[Write] and compose an email to a recipient for whom you have a signed public key.
Figure 1: Thunderbird's Compose Window
Important: Both the padlock button (which indicates that your message will be encrypted) and the pencil button (which indicates that your message will be signed) should light up as soon as you enter an email address for which you have a valid, signed public key. You should also see "This message will be signed and encrypted" toward the upper, right-hand corner of the window. This is because:
By default, Enigmail automatically encrypts email to correspondents for whom you have a valid public key
We enabled sign encrypted messages, under [Account Settings > OpenPGP Security] in a previous section.
You can choose not to encrypt or sign a message by disabling the padlock or pencil buttons before clicking [Send]. (You can also configure Thunderbird to send unencrypted email by default. This option is under Manual encryption settings in the Sending tab of Enigmail's Preferences menu.)
Step 2.ClickEnigmail in the compose window menu bar.
Figure 2: Enabling encryption and signing
Step 3.Check the Encrypt Message box.
Step 4.Check the Sign Message box.
Once you have entered a To: address for which you have a verified public key, the following message should appear in the upper, right-hand corner of the window:
Figure 3: Enigmail letting you know that it is ready to encrypt and sign a message
Step 6.Type the passphrase for your private key.
Step 7.Click[OK] to send your (encrypted and signed) message.
When you click on an encrypted message, Enigmail will prompt you for the passphrase to your private key so it can decrypt the message. Type your passphrase and click[Unlock].
Figure 1: A decrypted message with a verified signature
Enigmail will display some information at the top of the message. In the figure above, for example, "Decrypted message; Good signature from Mansour" tells you that:
The message was encrypted using your public key (which can be done by anyone)
You successfully decrypted it
It was signed by someone with the private key that corresponds to the firstname.lastname@example.org public key that you have imported
You have signed that email@example.com public key, hopefully after verifying that it belongs to the real Mansour.
Q: What happens if I just install Enigmail and not GnuPG?
A: That's simple, really. Enigmail just won't work. After all, it's the GnuPG software that provides the encryption engine that Enigmail uses.
Q: How many email accounts can I set up in Thunderbird?
A: As many as you like! Thunderbird is an email manager and can easily handle 20 or more email accounts!
Q: My friend has a Gmail account. Should I convince him to install Thunderbird, Enigmail and GnuPG?
A: That would be ideal. Just make sure he configures all of his security settings in exactly the same way as you did. Then the two of you will have an extremely effective way of communicating in privacy and safety!
Q: Remind me one more time, which parts of an email message does Enigmail encrypt?
A: Enigmail only encrypts the content of messages. Subject lines will not be encrypted, nor will sender and recipient email addresses (or the names associated with those addresses). So, choose your subject lines carefully and consider creating a GnuPG key for at least one email account that does not include your real name.
Q: I still don't understand the purpose of digitally signing my messages.
A: A digital signature proves that you're the real sender of a particular message and that the message hasn't been tampered with on its way to your intended recipient. Think of it as the electronic equivalent of the wax seal on an envelope, which contains a very important letter.