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152. Power Email

By Andrew D. Wright

Everyone knows basic email skills. Email can do a number of other things too.

If you're going to send something to more than a couple of close friends, you should use BCC or blind carbon copy to do it. All email programs support BCC though they usually hide it in a menu or drop down box when you're writing an email.

Proper form is to put the addresses of the recipients in the BCC field, each one separated by a comma, and put your own address in the To: field. Everyone will get an email from you to you and none of their addresses will show up in the email.

Getting an email with fifty peoples' addresses in it looks amateurish and exposes all the recipients to having their addresses spammed should any one of them have a compromised computer relaying info to spammers.

When you send an email, most email programs will offer an option to have a return receipt sent back when the recipient reads the email. This can be useful for important messages, though the recipient can choose not to acknowledge receipt if they prefer. If they do return your receipt, you would get an email back telling you that the message has been read.

One of the big differences between paper mail and email is proof of identity. If you get a paper mail, it has been signed by someone and the envelope has a postmark from where it was sent.

Email can do this too. For a postmark, email has full headers that are usually hidden by your email program. When the full headers are shown, the chain of machines the email went through to get to you is revealed.

[Graphic: Signing a message with Mozilla Thunderbird 2]  For a signature, email messages can be digitally signed. A digital signature on a message ensures that the message came from the person who signed it and the contents have not been altered, which would break the digital signature.

An email can be signed by a personal certificate, issued by a certificate authority after verifying the identity of the applicant. Thawte is a major certificate authority which gives out personal certificates for free. Their site includes instructions for installing the certificate in your mail program.

You can also sign a message using personal encryption programs like PGP or GPG, and your private key can be signed by people who know you with their private encryption keys, forming a chain of trust ensuring that your key is really yours.

Signing an email once you've set this up is easy - you select to sign a message when you're writing it and put in your private key or private certificate password. This password is something only you should know and it should not be written down. Your digital signature is only as secure as your private key or private certificate password. Without this password, no one can fake your signature or alter any signed email from you in any way.

[Graphic: vCard as displayed by Mozilla Thunderbird 2] Another power email trick is to attach a vCard to your email. A vCard is like a business card: you can include name, detailed contact information and a fairly long list of other data, all in a compact format that is easily imported to someone's mail program addressbook. Most mail programs will have an option to create and edit a personal vCard and it can be attached to any message you send out.

Businesses use vCards to make sure their clients have contact info close at hand. Families can use it to include info like children's names and birthdays in a handy, readily usable form.


Thawte Personal Certificate (free):


Mousepad on setting up GPG:


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Originally published 15 May 2009


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