What is Email Authentication?

Across every business, email is a crucial form of communication, but it comes with risks, such as poor deliverability and security threats. You can mitigate these concerns with the help of email authentication. Email authentication is a way to prove an email is not fake or fraudulent by verifying that a legitimate source sends it. By prioritizing it, you protect your brand and ensure your messages reach their intended recipients. 

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Email authentication benefits

Let’s explore why email authentication should be a key player in your digital strategy. It’s not just a technical nicety but a game changer with tangible benefits that directly impact your brand reputation, security, and communication success.

Boosted email deliverability

Email deliverability measures the percentage of emails that successfully reach a recipient’s email address. A deliverability rate is high when the number of emails delivered is exceptionally close to or equal to the total number of emails sent. Alternatively, a deliverability rate can be low when emails bounce, or an email server flags a message as spam.

Many factors influence email deliverability, but a sender’s reputation is chief among them.  Email authentication allows internet service providers (ISPs) to identify email senders to better filter and deliver reputable messages to a receiver’s inbox. Authentication helps verify that you are a legitimate sender, minimizing the risk of ISPs filtering your emails and ultimately leading to a better email deliverability rate. 

Increased security, trust, and engagement

Cyber threats are rising, with phishing and spoofing attacks posing significant business risks.  Industries such as finance, SaaS, and e-commerce are particularly vulnerable to phishing scams. Email authentication is a powerful tool in your security arsenal, offering defense against these attacks and protecting your brand integrity.

Email authentication confirms that an email claiming to come from a specific domain belongs to an authorized user. It involves protocols like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC (more on these later) that validate the origin of an email, making it harder for phishers to impersonate trusted sources. When an email doesn’t pass these authentication checks, it can be flagged or even rejected outright, protecting the recipient from potential phishing attempts. Email authentication is like a digital seal of approval that helps prevent cybercriminals from successfully posing as reputable entities. 

When your recipients know your emails are legit, trust is built. Trust breeds engagement, the stepping stone to better customer and partner relationships.

Meeting compliance requirements 

Beyond security, email authentication plays a pivotal role in satisfying compliance requirements. In sectors like healthcare, education, and finance, where handling sensitive data is part of the day-to-day, email authentication isn’t just recommended; it’s critical. In healthcare, for instance, regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) require the secure handling of Protected Health Information (PHI). While HIPAA doesn’t explicitly mandate email authentication, utilizing such protocols can support HIPAA compliance by ensuring the secure transmission of emails containing PHI. It all boils down to keeping sensitive information confidential, secure, and in the right hands.

Specific sectors or government agencies may also require it — for example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has directed federal agencies to use DMARC, a form of email authentication. So, although the rules may vary, email authentication demonstrates a commitment to best practices in data security and privacy, helping ensure compliance across different regions and sectors. 

Email authentication methods and protocols

Email service providers (ESPs) like Gmail and Microsoft Outlook and corporate email servers use several standard authentication protocols to make verification possible. 

Sender Policy Framework (SPF)

SPF is a technique that helps verify if an email is coming from the domain it claims to be from. The domain owner specifies which IP addresses can send emails on its behalf. So, when an email arrives, the recipient’s server can check the SPF record to see if the email comes from an approved source. If it doesn’t, it’s a red flag that the email might not be what it seems, helping to thwart spammers and phishers.

DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM)

DKIM is another key protocol in email authentication. It works like a digital signature for your emails. When you send an email, your server adds a DKIM signature, a kind of encrypted seal, to the email header. On the receiving end, the recipient’s server decrypts the signature using your public key, available in your domain’s DNS records. This process verifies that the email came from your domain and wasn’t altered in transit, adding an extra layer of trust and security to your email communications.

Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC)

Think of DMARC as the team leader in the world of email authentication. It leverages the strengths of SPF and DKIM and takes it further by adding a policy. This policy tells the recipient’s server what to do if an email fails the SPF or DKIM checks. It also provides a feedback loop, sending reports about these checks back to the sender. This way, you get insights into who’s sending emails on your behalf — legitimately or not — allowing you to manage and protect your email domain more effectively. 

These authentication protocols complement each other, and security experts recommend implementing all three for the best protection. Security protections are increasingly critical as fraudsters continue using email as a primary attack platform.

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Types of email authentication

Whether you’re an application user sending emails from a third-party platform or a developer building this functionality in your product, you should know about the different types of email authentication available. 

Email authentication for users 

From a user perspective, choosing a platform that adheres to email authentication standards such as Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) and OAuth Email Authentication is like adding extra locks to your digital front door. 

  • MFA — requires multiple pieces of evidence to verify your identity, making it much harder for bad actors to gain unauthorized access.
  • OAuth — allows you to give apps access to your information without sharing your password, which is much safer. 

There are other types of authentication, like Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIME), that encrypt and digitally sign emails, adding an extra layer of security. 

Email authentication for developers

As a developer, embracing email authentication standards such as MFA and OAuth is integral for securing your applications and earning the trust of your users. In an era of escalating cyber threats, you must ensure the digital safety of your users’ data. With MFA, you add an extra security layer that makes unauthorized access much more challenging. Implementing OAuth, on the other hand, offers a safe way for your application to interact with user data without needing their passwords, again increasing overall security. 

Additionally, working with platforms prioritizing secure email operations further enhances your application’s integrity. This way, prioritizing email authentication is a win-win, safeguarding your users and elevating your application’s reputation.

What is an email authentication API? 

An email authentication API allows developers to integrate email authentication processes into their existing systems, applications, or websites. Let’s look at email authentication processes from some of the more well-known ESPs. 

Gmail authentication (Google OAuth)

Google OAuth is an open standard for access delegation used in email authentication. It allows users to grant applications the ability to interact with their email data without sharing their Google account password. This offers a secure way to handle user authentication, maintain user trust, and ensure data privacy. 

When integrating Gmail into your applications, leveraging OAuth can simplify authentication and enhance security. To add an extra layer of ease, consider using an email API that supports OAuth to securely connect email accounts to your services, offering developers a smooth and secure route to email integration.

Microsoft Outlook authentication (Outlook OAuth)

Outlook OAuth is a protocol that allows applications to securely access and interact with a user’s Outlook data without requiring their Microsoft account password. 

Adopting OAuth when integrating Outlook into your applications can streamline the authentication process while bolstering security. Similar to the Google OAuth process, for an even smoother developer experience, you should consider using an email API that supports OAuth. 

IMAP authentication 

IMAP is a protocol for retrieving emails and doesn’t include a built-in authentication method like OAuth. Some email servers support OAuth, meaning OAuth tokens are used to authenticate when connecting via IMAP. This way, you can retrieve a user’s emails via IMAP without requiring the user’s password. When integrating your application with IMAP using OAuth, you must remember that OAuth is the authentication layer that secures the connection. IMAP is the protocol used to access and manipulate email data.

An email authentication API can support Google OAuth, Outlook OAuth, and other similar services by bridging your application and these ESPs. By supporting different OAuth services, the API can connect to various email providers, giving users the freedom to use their preferred email service. The API handles the differences between each service’s implementation of OAuth, simplifying the process for developers and ensuring a consistent user experience.

How to authenticate an email

Email authentication typically involves the email sender’s server (say, your company’s email server) and the email receiver’s server (like your client’s email provider) working together to authenticate messages. Generally, the process looks something like this: 

  • Step 1: Set Up SPF. This process involves adding an SPF record to your domain’s DNS settings. 
  • Step 2: Implement DKIM to add a digital signature to the headers of your emails.
  • Step 3: Configure DMARC to tie the previous two protocols together.  
  • Step 4: Regularly review your SPF, DKIM, and DMARC settings and reports to ensure they address any issues correctly.

In today’s digital world, integrating with platforms that handle these complexities can streamline the authentication process, ensuring your emails reach their intended recipients while maintaining the integrity and reputation of your brand.

Having Nylas in our corner took the Google OAuth Review process and empowered us to achieve verification under budget and ahead of schedule.

Rob Carrington

Head of Engineering, Harbor Plan

Secure email authentication with the Nylas Email API

The Nylas Email API helps developers build native email integrations. It enables nearly 100% email deliverability by allowing users to send messages directly from their email address versus a shared domain or IP address. Our high deliverability rates allow businesses to improve and maintain their sending reputations, decreasing the possibility of communications landing in spam. 

Additional features of the Nylas Email API include: 

  • The ability to connect to 100% of ESPs 
  • Support for email threading functionality
  • Access to email analytics, tracking opens, link clicks, and replies
  • Guaranteed 99.9% uptime
  • Adherence to the most rigorous security and compliance standards

Nylas supports several authentication types, including options for hosted (out of the box) and native (build on your own) OAuth authentication for Google and Microsoft accounts and secure password authentication for legacy servers. We use multiple application-level security mechanisms and features to ensure customer data is safe. All customer API calls require proprietary OAuth2 authentication tokens granted only by Nylas, and user data is encrypted using military-grade encryption standards.We also support identity providers with single sign-on capabilities, such as Okta and OneLogin. For more information on security and privacy controls at Nylas, check out the Nylas Security Whitepaper or connect with a platform specialist.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I authenticate my email?

Authenticating your email involves implementing protocols like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC, each providing a layer of validation, ensuring your emails come from a trusted source. 

While this can be complex, tools like Nylas can help streamline the process. Nylas offers APIs that provide secure email operations and ease the management of access tokens. It’s all about layering these strategies to create a trusted, secure environment for email communication.

What are examples of email authentication?

We usually refer to protocols like SPF, DKIM, and DMARC when discussing email authentication. These tools help verify that an email is genuinely from the sender it claims to be, preventing spoofing and phishing. 

Nylas’ suite of APIs can aid in creating secure email operations, providing trust and integrity in your email communication. Remember, the goal is to create a safer digital space for you and your email recipients.

Why do I need to authenticate my email account?

Email authentication is key to protecting both you and your recipients. Without it, malicious actors could spoof your email address, making it appear that their emails are coming from you. This could lead to phishing attacks against your contacts or damaging your reputation. On the receiving side, authentication helps you by verifying the emails you receive are from the senders they claim to be, reducing the risk of falling victim to scams or malware.

What is the difference between DMARC and DKIM?

DKIM and DMARC are both email authentication protocols, but they serve different purposes. DKIM provides an encryption key and digital signature that verifies that an email message was not forged or altered, essentially “signing” emails as they’re sent from your domain. On the other hand, DMARC builds on this by taking it a step further. It uses the DKIM signature and SPF and adds a policy defining how to handle emails that fail these checks. So, while DKIM verifies the email’s integrity, DMARC dictates what should happen if a message doesn’t pass muster. 

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Additional Resources

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