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CNBC Explains: How to encrypt your email

Angered by the revelations that NSA is sweeping up data from millions of emails and phone calls while courts hem and haw over whether it's legal, or just annoyed by the targeted ads from Google and Yahoo, some email users are looking for ways to keep private emails and text messages safe from prying eyes.

The answer is encryption—though there's a price to pay, as it requires a little work. But you don't have to be Edward Snowden to set up a basic encrypted email account. "It's doable, but it's just not convenient," said Gary Davis, vice president of global consumer marketing at McAfee, which makes both antivirus and anti-spyware software.

Here's a primer on how to hide your communication trail from the NSA.

Gregor Schuster | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

First, it's important to make the distinction between security and privacy. If the network is compromised or you picked an easy password, then there's not much any encryption program can do. That said, there are several ways to make sure a snooper is at least slowed down.

Most people are familiar with HTTPS sites—that stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure. When you log onto the website of a bank or even an email server, HTTPS provides a "secure tunnel" to the site visited and encrypts the communications between the computer (or smart device) and the server. Even though the connection to Google Mail, for example, is encrypted, once the email is sent, it is "in the clear." So HTTPS is useful for stopping man-in-the-middle attacks—the kind where the person in a coffee shop is monitoring Internet connections and eavesdropping, but it won't stop the spy agencies from reading your mail.

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Another way to reduce your email footprint is to keep email on the desktop. Desktop email takes the email off the server and stores it on your local computer. A lot of older mail programs actually operated this way; some newer ones have a "delete from the server" option. Davis noted that many use Web-based email and don't think twice about leaving all those messages in the cloud. "Use a desktop client," he said. "Use one with IMAP," and then use IMAP to delete messages from the server every time. IMAP—or Internet Message Access Protocol over SSL—is a common feature that supports downloading messages this way via a secure connection.

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