Example Data Flows and State Transitions

Autocrypt key discovery happens through headers of mail messages sent between mail apps. Similar to TLS’s machine to machine handshake, users first need to have a cleartext mail exchange. Subsequent mails from the receiving peer may then be encrypted. Mail apps show encryptability to their users at “compose-mail” time and give them a choice of encryption or cleartext, defaulting to what the other side has specified in their header.

These examples try to walk a new reader through the basic flow. For example headers, see also Level1 spec header examples.

Basic network protocol flow

Establishing encryption happens as a side effect when people send each other mail:

  • A MUA (mail user agent) adds an Autocrypt: header to all messages it sends out. The header contains all necessary information to allow encryption (especially the encryption key; see Internal state storage for the format in detail).
  • A MUA will scan incoming mails for encryption headers and associate the info with a canonicalized version of the From: address contained in the RFC 822 message.
  • A MUA will encrypt a message if it has encryption keys for all recipients and it determined through user choice or recipient-determined policies that the message should be encrypted.

“Happy path” example: 1:1 communication


Consider a blank state and a first outgoing message from Alice to Bob:

From: alice@a.example
To: bob@b.example

Upon sending this mail, Alice’s MUA will add a header which contains her encryption key:

Autocrypt: addr=alice@a.example; prefer-encrypt=mutual; keydata=...

Bob’s MUA will scan the incoming mail, find Alice’s key and store it associated to the alice@a.example address taken from the addr-attribute. When Bob now composes a mail to Alice his MUA will find the key and signal to Bob that the mail will be encrypted and after finalization of the mail encrypt it. Moreover, Bob’s MUA will add its own encryption info:

Autocrypt: addr=bob@b.example; prefer-encrypt=mutual; keydata=...

When Alice’s MUA now scans the incoming mail from Bob it will store Bob’s key and the fact that Bob sent an encrypted mail. Subsequently both Alice and Bob will have their MUAs encrypt mails to each other.

If prefer-encrypted is sent as mutual and this is also the choice set for the MUA, the MUA MUST default to encrypting the next e-mail. In all other cases, the MUA MUST default to plaintext to make sure the recipient can read the e-mail.

Group mail communication (1:N)

Consider a blank state and a first outgoing message from Alice to Bob and Carol. Alice’s MUA adds a header just like in the 1:1 case so that Bob’s and Carol’s MUAs will learn Alice’s key.

If Bob and Carol have not exchanged E-Mails yet, they can only encrypt to her, but not to each other. To enable them to answer encrypted to everyone, Alice includes an extra header for each recipient, the Autocrypt-Gossip: header, which propagates their keys to every other recipient. This way, Bob and Carol can immediately engage in the encrypted group conversation, even if they didn’t know each other before.

Gossip is a bit less trustworthy than a 1:1 Autocrypt key exchange; an attacker could use it to spread wrong keys of other people. That’s why Autocrypt: headers are always preferred to the Gossip-Headers.

Because Autocrypt is about opportunistic encryption, you still have this opportunity of propagating the keys of others to facilitate group communication. Other security measures like fingerprint verification can follow on top.

Losing access to decryption key

If Alice loses access to her decryption secret:

  • she lets her MUA generate a new key
  • her MUA will add an Autocrypt header containing the new key with each mail
  • receiving MUAs will replace the old key with the new key

Meanwhile, if Bob sends Alice a mail encrypted to the old key she will not be able to read it. After she responds (e.g. with “Hey, can’t read your mail”) Bob’s MUA will see the new key and subsequently use it.


Check if we can encrypt a MIME e-mail such that non-decrypt-capable MUAs will show a message that helps Alice to reply in the suggested way. We don’t want people to read handbooks before using Autocrypt so any guidance we can “automatically” provide in case of errors is good.


Unless we can get perfect recoverability (also for device loss etc.) we will always have to consider this “fatal” case of losing a secret key and how users can deal with it. Especially in the federated e-mail context we do not think perfect recoverability is feasible.

Downgrading / switch to a MUA without Autocrypt support

Alice might decide to switch to a different MUA which does not support Autocrypt.

A MUA which previously saw an Autocrypt header and/or encryption from Alice now sees an unencrypted mail from Alice and no Autocrypt header. This will disable encryption to Alice for subsequent mails.

Autocrypt relies on non-Autocrypt-capable MUAs to act as a sort of “reset” for the user in the case where they stop using Autocrypt.