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Web-based email is probably not more secure than running a PC-based program... but as always, backing up is!

Is there any increased security to be had via receiving opening and saving all email on the web-based email reader provided by almost all email providers?

In this excerpt from Answercast #80, I look at some of the security implications of web-based email over local access. Most important is to back up!

Is web-based email more secure?

Not really. The email, whether you use web-based or not, is sitting on your email provider's server any way.

When you use a POP3 email client on your desktop, you move the mail to your desktop PC. If you're using IMAP, you just create a copy of the email on your desktop PC.

All of the communication paths are very similar when you're using web-based email. Most of the sites provide an HTTPS secure encrypted connection, so nobody can snoop on your email being read, but most of the POP 3 and/or IMAP providers also provide a similar SSL type of connection that provides the same level of functionality.

Secure from viruses

We also think of things like malware and so forth. But malware usually arrives in the form of an attachment and it's up to you whether you open that attachment.

Well, opening it is going to be opening it regardless of where you happen to get it from. If you grab the attachment from email on the web and download it and open it, or get it in your email program on your desktop and open it, it's the same thing.

Choose what works

So ultimately, I really don't see a huge security advantage to one approach over the other.

I definitely would choose one over the other based on convenience and what works the best for you - and what allows you to insure that your email is properly backed up.

That more than anything is perhaps one of the downsides of web-based email. People assume that it will always be there and we have seen time and time again that accounts can get hacked. Emails can disappear and so forth.

With that in mind, I strongly recommend that you find some way of backing up your email if you're only going to read it on a web-based interface.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

End of Answercast 80 Back to - Audio Segment

Article C6160 - December 20, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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3 Comments
Jeff
December 20, 2012 7:40 PM

I agree that backing up an online account is a good idea and, luckily, there are useful tools for this. I use Gmail and my favorite is Gmvault (http://gmvault.org/). Another approach is to create a backup account, then configure your main account to forward a copy of every received email to it so you always have a fully operational backup account in case your primary is compromised or you get blocked from it by the provider.

Lloyd J
December 21, 2012 8:57 AM

@Jeff, and that account should be with a DIFFERENT provider. If your main account is johndoe@gmail.com, then the backup should be johndoe@hotmail.com, not johndoe2@gmail.com.

James M
December 23, 2012 5:13 AM

I understand Leo's reservations, but I have become a huge fan of web-based Email for the following reasons:

1. Ease of access

2. Great spam blocking (I have 3 web-based E-mail accounts and zero spam mail in any of my inboxes)

3. Virtually unlimited storage and the ability to send and receive large files

As for the back-up issue, I feel it is basically solved by having a smartphone. I have an IPhone, to which all of my E-mails are automatically transferred. I have accidentally deleted E-mails on my computer and recovered them on my IPhone.

To be honest, I almost can't see why anyone would still want to have a provider-based E-mail account. I have one and I don't even know what the address is as I have never used it!

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