Autocrypt Level 0: Enabling encryption, avoiding annoyances

This document describes the basic capabilities required for a mail app (MUA) to be Autocrypt-capable at Level 0. The design of Level 0 is driven by usability concerns and by the realities of incremental deployment. A user may use both Autocrypt-enabled mail apps and traditional plain ones and we’d like to avoid annoyances like unexpected unreadable mails while supporting users who want to explicitly turn on encryption.

For ease of implementation and deployment, Level 0 does not support multi-device configurations. We intend to support the multi-device use case (and other features) as part of Level 1. We want to keep Level 0 minimal enough that it’s easy for developers to adopt it and we can start to drive efforts from real-life experiences as soon as possible.

Throughout this document, we refer to a mail app or Mail User Agent (MUA) as though it was only capable of controlling a single e-mail account. An MUA that is capable of connecting to multiple e-mail accounts should have a separate Autocrypt state for each e-mail account it has access to.

Requirements on MUA/E-mail Provider interactions

Autocrypt tries to impose minimal requirements on how MUAs and e-mail services interact. We assume that an Autocrypt-capable MUA has credentials and capabilities to perform these network services:

  • The ability to send e-mail (e.g. via SMTP or Submission) where the MUA can control the entire message being sent, including both message headers and message body.
  • The ability to receive e-mail where the MUA gets access to the entire message being received, including both message headers and message body.
  • Optionally, a way to scan the user’s Sent folder for mail with specific headers.

If a particular e-mail account does not expose one of the required features (e.g. if it only exposes a javascript-driven web interface for message composition that does not allow setting of e-mail headers) then the e-mail account cannot be used with Autocrypt. An Autocrypt-capable MUA may still access and control the account, but it will not be able to enable Autocrypt on it.


Discuss with webmail developers how to work with, refine the interactions.

Secret key generation and storage

The MUA MUST be capable of generating and storing two RSA 2048-bit secret keys, one for signing and self-certification and the other for decrypting. It MUST be capable of assembling these keys into an OpenPGP certificate (RFC 4880 “Transferable Public Key”) that indicates these capabilities.

The secret key material is critical for security as in other end-to-end applications, and should be protected from access by other applications or co-tenants of the device, at least as well as the passwords the MUA retains for the user’s IMAP or SMTP accounts.

Avoiding Client Conflicts

If more than one Autocrypt-enabled client generates a key and then distributes it to communication peers, encrypted mail sent to the user is only readable by the MUA that sent the last message. This can lead to behavior that is unpredictable and confusing for the user.

As a simple measure of mitigation, Level 0 MUAs SHOULD check before key generation whether there is evidence in the user’s mailbox of other active Autocrypt clients. To do this, they SHOULD scan the user’s Sent folder for mail that contains Autocrypt headers. If such mail exists, the MUA SHOULD warn the user and abort key generation, unless explicitly instructed to proceed regardless.

In cases where an Autocrypt-capable MUA is unable to identify the user’s Sent folder, or is unable to access any pre-existing message archive (e.g. a POP-only MUA), the MUA MUST warn the user that Autocrypt should be enabled on only one client before enabling Autocrypt on the given account.

To solve this problem in a better way, bi-directional communication between the user’s different MUAs is required. However, this is out of scope for Level 0.

Secret Key Transfer

Although bi-directional communication between different MUAs is out of scope for Level 0, self-sent email is used as a simple way to transfer secret key material to other clients. A Level 0 client SHOULD support this mechanism, to make sure that secret keys are never stuck on the device they were generated on, but can be retrieved by other Autocrypt clients in a predictable way.

  • create self-sent message
  • contains secret key
  • symmetric encryption format
  • high-entropy passphrase - bit strength? - is s2k sufficient for a kdf? or scrypt on top? - must not end up in the user’s mail store!!
  • message format - attachment? something else?
  • message text

Header injection in outbound mail

During message composition, if the From: header of the outgoing e-mail matches an address that the Autocrypt-capable agent knows the secret key material for, it SHOULD include an Autocrypt header. This header contains the associated public key material as key= attribute, and the same sender address that is used in the From header in the to= attribute to confirm the association. The most minimal Level 0 MUA will only include these two attributes.

If the From: address changes during message composition (E.g. if the user selects a different outbound identity), the Autocrypt-capable client MUST change the Autocrypt header appropriately.

See “Happy path” example: 1:1 communication for examples of outbound headers and the following sections for header format definitions and parsing.

Deriving a Parsed Autocrypt Header from a Message

The Autocrypt header has the following format:

Autocrypt:; [type=p;] [prefer-encrypted=(yes|no);] key=BASE64

The to attribute indicates the single recipient address this header is valid for. In case this address differs from the one the MUA considers the sender of the e-mail in parsing, which will usually be the one specified in the From header, the entire header MUST be treated as invalid.

The type and key attributes specify the type and data of the key material. For now the only supported type is p, which represents a specific subset of OpenPGP (see the next section), and is also the default. Headers with an unknown type MUST be treated as invalid. The value of the key attribute is a Base64 representation of the public key material. For ease of parsing, the key attribute MUST be the last attribute in the header.

The prefer-encrypted attribute indicates whether agents should default to encrypting when composing e-mails to this recipient. If prefer-encrypted is not set, the value of prefer-encrypted is nopreference. If prefer-encrypted is set, but neither yes nor no, the MUA must skip the header as invalid.

Additional attributes unspecified here are also possible before the key attribute. If an attribute name starts with an underscore (_), it is a “non-critical” attribute. An attribute name without a leading underscore is a “critical” attribute. The MUA SHOULD ignore any unsupported non-critical attribute and continue parsing the rest of the header as though the attribute does not exist, but MUST treat the entire header as invalid if it encounters a “critical” attribute it doesn’t support.

When parsing an incoming message, a MUA MUST examine all Autocrypt headers, rather than just the first one. If there is more than one valid header, this MUST be treated as an error, and all Autocrypt headers discarded as invalid.


  • Document why we skip on more than one valid header?

type=p: OpenPGP Based key data

For maximum interoperability, a certificate sent by an Autocrypt-enabled Level 0 MUA MUST consist of an OpenPGP “Transferable Public Key”) containing exactly these five OpenPGP packets:

  • a signing-capable primary key Kp
  • a user id
  • a self signature
  • an encryption-capable subkey Ke
  • a binding signature over Ke by Kp

The content of the user id packet is only decorative. By convention, it contains the same address used in the to attribute in angle brackets, conforming to the RFC 2822 grammar angle-addr.

These packets MUST be assembled in binary format (not ASCII-armored), and then base64-encoded.

A Level 0 MUA MUST be capable of processing and handling 2048-bit RSA keys. It SHOULD be capable of handling Curve 25519 keys (ed25519 for Kp and cv25519 for Ke), but some underlying toolkits may not yet support Curve 25519. It MAY support other OpenPGP key formats.

Internal state storage


You should be familiar with “Happy path” example: 1:1 communication before reading the following.

If a remote peer disables Autocrypt or drops back to using a non-Autocrypt MUA only we must be able to disable sending encrypted mails to this peer automatically. MUAs capable of Autocrypt level 0 therefore MUST store state about the capabilities of their remote peers.

Agents MAY also store additional information gathered for heuristic purposes, or for other cryptographic schemes. However, in order to support future syncing of Autocrypt state between agents, it is critical that Autocrypt-capable agents maintain the state specified here.

Conceptually, we represent this state as a table named autocrypt_peer_state indexed by the peer’s canonicalized e-mail address and key type. In level 0, there is only one type, p, so level 0 agents can implement this by indexing only the peer’s e-mail address.

For each e-mail and type, an agent MUST store the following attributes:

  • pah: Parsed Autocrypt Header, which could be null
  • changed: UTC Timestamp when pah was last changed
  • last_seen: Most recent UTC time that pah was confirmed

Autocrypt-compatible agents SHOULD track and store in autocrypt_peer_state a parsed interpretation pah, which is not necessarily the literal header emitted (for the literal header, see next section). The pah MUST contain the following fields:

  • key: the raw key material, after base64 decoding
  • prefer_encrypted: a quad-state: nopreference, yes, no or reset


The above is not an exhaustive list; implementors are encouraged to improve upon this scheme as they see fit. Suggestions for additional (optional) state that an agent may want to keep about a peer can be found in Optional per-peer state.

Updating internal state upon message receipt

When first encountering an incoming e-mail M from an e-mail address A, the MUA should follow the following autocrypt_update algorithm:

  • Set a local message_date to the Date: header of M.
  • If message_date is in the future, set message_date to the current time.


This implies that Autocrypt clients keep track of whether they have encountered a given message before, but does not provide them with guidance on how to do so. Message-ID? Digest of full message body? The consequences of re-triggering the message receipt process should only matter for messages that are erroneously marked with a future date. Another approach that would not require keeping track of the message would be to simply ignore messages whose Date: header is in the future.

  • Set a local message_pah to be the Autocrypt:
    header in M. This is either a single Parsed Autocrypt Header, or null.


The agent continues this message receipt process even when message_pah is null, since updating the stored state with null is sometimes the correct action.

  • OPTIONAL: If message_pah is null, and the MUA knows about additional OpenPGP keys and the message is cryptographically signed with a valid, verifiable message signature from a known OpenPGP certificate K, then we may replace message_pah with a synthesized_pah generated from the message itself:
    • If K is not encryption-capable (i.e. if the primary key has no encryption-capabilities marked, and no valid subkeys are encryption-capable), or if K does not have an OpenPGP User ID which contains the e-mail address in the message’s From:, then synthesized_pah should remain null.
    • Otherwise, with an encryption-capable K, the key element of synthesized_pah is set to K and the prefer_encrypted element of synthesized_pah is set to nopreference.
    • If K is encryption-capable and one of the message headers is an OpenPGP header which expresses a preference for encrypted e-mail, the prefer_encrypted element of synthesized_pah should be set to yes.


This behaviour is optional: MUAs which support non-Autocrypt OpenPGP workflows may have other strategies they prefer. Implementing the synthesized_pah is not necessary to guarantee correct interop with other Autocrypt implementations, but it will improve compatibility with the rest of the OpenPGP ecosystem and is therefore presented here as a suggestion.

We do not synthesize the Autocrypt header from any application/pgp-keys message parts. This is because it’s possible that an attached OpenPGP key is not intended to be the sender’s OpenPGP key. For example, Alice might send Bob Carol’s OpenPGP key in an attachment, but Bob should not interpret it as Carol’s key.


  • Next, the agent compares the message_pah with the pah stored in autocrypt_peer_state[A].

  • If autocrypt_peer_state has no record at all for address A, the MUA sets autocrypt_peer_state[A] such that pah is message_pah and changed and last_seen are both message_date, and then terminates this receipt process.

  • If autocrypt_peer_state[A] has last_seen greater than or equal to message_date, then the agent terminates this receipt process, since it already knows about something more recent. For example, this might be if mail is delivered out of order, or if a mailbox is scanned from newest to oldest.

  • If autocrypt_peer_state[A] has a last_seen less than message_date, then we compare message_pah with the pah currently stored in autocrypt_peer_state[A].

    This is done as a literal comparison using only the key and prefer_encrypt fields, even if the Agent stores additional fields as an augmentation, as follows:

    • If pah is null, or if key is bytewise different, or if prefer_encrypted has a different value, then this is an update.
    • If key and prefer_encrypted match exactly, then it is considered a match.
    • If both pah and message_pah are null, it is a match.
    • If message_pah is null (and pah is not), it is a reset.
  • In the case of a match, set autocrypt_peer_state[A].last_seen to message_date.

  • In the case of an update:

    • set autocrypt_peer_state[A].pah to message_pah
    • set autocrypt_peer_state[A].last_seen to message_date
    • set autocrypt_peer_state[A].changed to message_date
  • In the case of a reset:

    • set autocrypt_peer_state[A].pah.prefer_encrypted to reset
    • set autocrypt_peer_state[A].changed to message_date


The above algorithm results in a non-deterministic autocrypt_peer_state if two Autocrypt headers are processed using the same message_date (depending on which message is encountered first). For consistency and predictability across implementations, it would be better to have a strict ordering between parsed Autocrypt headers, and to always select the lower header in case of equal values of message_date.


OpenPGP’s composable certificate format suggests that there could be alternate ways to compare key values besides strict bytewise comparison. For example, this could be done by comparing only the fingerprint of the OpenPGP primary key instead of the keydata. However, this would miss updates of the encryption-capable subkey, or updates to the capabilities advertised in the OpenPGP self-signature. Alternately, the message receipt process could incorporate fancier date comparisons by integrating the timestamps within the OpenPGP messages during the date comparison step. For simplicity and ease of implementation, level 0 Autocrypt-capable agents are expected to avoid these approaches and to do full bytestring comparisons of key data instead.


the spec currently doesn’t say how to integrate Autocrypt processing on message receipt with spam filtering. Should we say something about not doing Autocrypt processing on message receipt if the message is believed to be spam?

Provide a recommendation for message encryption

On message composition, an Autocrypt-capable agent also has an opportunity to decide whether to try to encrypt an e-mail. Autocrypt aims to provide a reasonable recommendation for the agent.

Any Autocrypt-capable agent may have other means for making this decision outside of Autocrypt (see Interoperability With Other Cryptographic E-mail Mechanisms). Autocrypt provides a recommendation to this process, but there is no requirement for Autocrypt-capable agents to always follow the Autocrypt recommendation.

That said, all Autocrypt-capable agents should be able to calculate the same Autocrypt recommendation due to their internal state.

The Autocrypt recommendation depends on the list of recipient addresses for the message being composed. When the user edits the list of recipients, the recommendation may change. The MUA should reflect this change.


It’s possible that the user manually overriddes the Autocrypt recommendation and then edits the list of recipients. The MUA SHOULD retain the user’s manual choices for a given message even if the Autcrypt recommendation changes.


Discuss how to deal with the case where the user manually selects encryption and subsequently adds a recipient whom the MUA has no key.

Autocrypt can produce four possible recommendations to the agent during message composition:

  • disable: Disable or hide any UI that would allow the user to choose to encrypt the message. Prepare the message in cleartext.
  • discourage: Enable UI that would allow the user to choose to encrypt the message, but do not default to encryption. Prepare the message in cleartext. If the user manually enables encryption, warn them that the recipient may not be able to read the message.
  • available: Enable UI that would allow the user to choose to encrypt the message, but do not default to encryption. Prepare the message in cleartext.
  • encrypt: Enable UI that would allow the user to choose to send the message in cleartext, and default to encryption. Prepare the message as an encrypted message.

Recommendations for single-recipient messages

For level 0 MUAs, the Autocrypt recommendation for message composed to a single recipient with e-mail address A is derived from the value stored in autocrypt_peer_state[A].

If the pah is null, or if pah.key is known to be unusable for encryption (e.g. it is otherwise known to be revoked or expired), then the recommendation is disable.

If the pah is not null, and prefer-encrypted is yes or the message being composed is a reply to an encrypted message, then the recommendation is encrypt.

If pah is not null, and prefer-encrypted is reset, then the recommendation is discourage.

If pah is not null, and prefer-encrypted is either no or nopreference, then the recommendation is available.

Recommendations for messages to multiple addresses

For level 0 agents, the Autocrypt recommendation for a message composed to multiple recipients is derived from the recommendations for each recipient individually.

If any recipient has a recommendation of disable then the message recommendation is disable.

If the message being composed is a reply to an encrypted message, or if every recipient other than “myself” (the e-mail address that the message is From:) has a recommendation of encrypt then the message recommendation is encrypt.

If any recipient has a recommendation of discourage then the message recommendation is discourage.

Otherwise, the message recommendation is available.

Cleartext replies to encrypted mail

As you can see above, in the common use case, a reply to an encrypted message will also be encrypted. Due to Autocrypt’s opportunistic approach, however, it’s possible that pah is null for some recipient, which means the reply will be sent in the clear.

To avoid leaking cleartext from the original encrypted message in this case, the MUA MAY prepare the cleartext reply without including any of the typically quoted and attributed text from the previous message. Additionally, the MUA MAY include brief text in message body along the lines of:

The message this is a reply to was sent encrypted, but this reply is
unencrypted because I don't yet know how to encrypt to
````.  If ```` would reply here, my
future messages in this thread will be encrypted.

The above recommendations are only “MAY” and not “SHOULD” or “MUST” because we want to accomodate a user-friendly level 0 MUA that stays silent and does not impede the user’s ability to reply. Opportunistic encryption means we can’t guarantee encryption in every case.

Encrypt outbound mail as requested

As the user composes mail, in some circumstances, the MUA may be instructed by the user to encrypt the message. If the recipient’s keys are all of type=p, and the sender has keys for all recipients (as well as themselves), they should construct the encrypted message as a PGP/MIME encrypted+signed message, encrypted to all recipients and the public key whose secret is controlled by the MUA itself.

If the recommendation is discourage the user SHOULD be presented with a clear warning explaining that there is reason to believe one or more recipients will not be able to read the mail if it is sent encrypted. This message SHOULD state which recipients are considered problematic and provide useful information to help the user guage the risk. The optional counters and user-agent state described in Optional per-peer state can be useful for this message.

For messages that are going to be encrypted when sent, the MUA MUST take care not to leak the cleartext of drafts or other partially-composed messages to their e-mail provider (e.g. in the “Drafts” folder).

If there is a chance that a message could be encrypted, the MUA SHOULD encrypt drafts only to itself before storing it remotely.

Specific User Interface Elements

Ideally, Autocrypt users see very little UI. However, some UI is inevitable if we want users to be able to interoperate with existing, non-Autocrypt users.

Account Preferences

Level 0 MUAs MUST allow the user to disable Autocrypt completely for each account they control. For level 0, we expect most MUAs to have Autocrypt disabled by default.

If Autocrypt is enabled for a given account, the MUA SHOULD allow the user to specify whether they explicitly prefer encryption for inbound messages, or explicitly prefer cleartext for inbound messages, or choose to express no preference. The default SHOULD be “no preference”.

Please see Example User Interface for Autocrypt for specific examples of how this might look.

Message Composition

If an MUA is willing to compose encrypted mail, it SHOULD include some UI mechanism at message composition time for the user to choose between encrypted message or cleartext. This may be as simple as a single checkbox.

If the Autocrypt recommendation is disable for a given message, the MUA MAY choose to avoid exposing this UI during message composition at all.

If the Autocrypt recommendation is either available or encrypt, the MUA SHOULD expose this UI during message composition to allow the user to make a different decision.


  • Should we really recommend hiding the encrypt UI? This reduces UI consistency!