It's often needed in the business world to send encrypted email, and that's where the .p7m file extension comes in. Also known as smime.p7m, the encrypted email will show the header information but only an empty message. It will contain an attachment which is the text of the encrypted email with a name similar to smime.p7m. Any data needed to be sent via email can be encrypted including standard text, images, databases, PDF documents and so on. In order to send or read encrypted email you need to set up your email client properly, or use a web mail service which supports smime.p7m.
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Email clients that support .p7m include Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, Thunderbird, Eudora, Kmail, Evolution, and SeaMonkey. In some cases the support is built in and usable right out of the box, in other cases the user will need to download and install a plugin. There have been reports in recent years that some Microsoft systems have had trouble with the .p7m in Outlook versions 2000-20003, but hotfixes have since been created to solve the problem.
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More Info Regarding File Extension P7m
In any case, you'll need to configure your email client to receive certificates. Certificates tell the computer that you are allowed to see the contents of the encrypted email. If your company had a business contract with a major university for instance, your contact at the university might send you a copy of their certificate to import into your email client. When you receive an email from your contact, your email client will compare the information in your certificate with the one used to send the email. If they match you'll be able to see the text of the email along with any other attachments.
If you use web based email and your provider doesn't have support for smime.p7m, you can download an install a third party software package. Some of the more well known ones are Cryptigo, p7mViewer, and Kleopatra. You'll still need the certificates from individual senders, but once the certificates are installed, you'll be ready to go. You won't be able to reply directly from the viewer software but you can cut and paste any information you might need into your mail client.
Creating encrypted email is not difficult either, although you'll have to either obtain or create your own certificates. With a service like the Thawte Personal Mail Certificate, you can download a certificate free of charge after answering a few simple questions. After downloading, import the certificate into your mail client. Now you can simply compose your emails and send them encrypted to whomever you want. Just make sure the recipients also have a copy of your certificate.
If you feel like creating your own certificate, you'll need special software to do the job. Two of the best packages are OpenPGP which can be used in Thunderbird and Enigmail, and GnuPg. These software packages collect the information about you, generate the certificate and encryption keys, and if you desire create a signature file. The process for installing and configuring this software can be a bit challenging, but instructions for your specific platform can be found on the internet.
For those who prefer to avoid configuring their own mail client there are web based mail services which allow you to send encrypted email. Some services that handle encrypted email are Mymail.com, sbwave, Yahoo, Hotmail, and perfectlyprivate.com. Web based encryption is by far the least secure, so using this method is not highly recommended. If you absolutely need secure email, your data is probably important enough to learn how to add .p7m support to your mail client, or hire someone who can do it for you.