Microsoft announced today that it is releasing Office 365 Message Encryption, a new service that will let you send encrypted emails to anyone outside your company, in the first quarter of 2014.

This means that no matter the end destination of your email being sent via Office 365, Microsoft is adding another level of protection against unauthorized access. This would come in useful for sensitive communications, such as a bank sending credit card statements to their customers or a mortgage broker asking clients for financial information.

Encrypted email messages to anyone isn’t a new feature for Microsoft. The previous incarnation of Office 365 Message Encryption used to be Exchange Hosted Encryption, a paid-for service for users to encrypt email without complicated hardware and software. However, Microsoft has made improvements to Office 365 Message Encryption, making it much easier to use than EHE, and adding features such as the ability to apply your company’s branding to encrypted messages.

Here’s how Office 365′s new encryption will work. Simply select the action to apply or remove encryption for whatever types of messages in the Exchange admin center, and the outgoing message will get encrypted before it is delivered to the outside mail server.

MSFT Encrypt 1 Starting early 2014, you can send encrypted emails in Microsoft Office 365 to anyone

For the recipient to read your company’s encrypted email, he/she needs to go through a set of instructions contained in the email to get authenticated before the content of the message shows.

MSFT Encrypt 2 Starting early 2014, you can send encrypted emails in Microsoft Office 365 to anyone

As an added measure of protection, when the recipient replies to the sender of the encrypted message or forwards the message, these emails will also get encrypted.

Microsoft is including Office 365 Message Encryption in Windows Azure Rights Management, which means some Office 365 customers — specifically those under the E3 and E4 plans — will get it for free when it arrives next year. It’s not clear yet if this means customers not under these plans have to purchase the standalone version of Windows Azure Rights Management to get their hands on Office 365 Message Encryption — though that seems to be the case.

Headline image via Mario Tama/Getty Images