Encryption is the process of translating data into a secret format so that only authorized parties can understand the information. Plain text, or readable data that is not encrypted, is converted into cipher text, or scrambled data that is unreadable. Encryption takes readable data and alters it so it appears random. This is done to protect and secure the confidentiality of data transmitted through a network.

To read an encrypted file, the recipient must have access to a secret key or password that enables them to translate the information back to its original form. This process is called decryption.

Although it appears random, encryption requires the use of an encryption key. This key consists of a string of characters used in combination with an algorithm to transform the plain text into cipher text and vice versa. Each key is unique.

Types of encryption

There are two main types of encryption: Asymmetric (also known as public key cryptography) and symmetric. The biggest difference between the two is that symmetric encryption uses one key for both encryption and decryption, and asymmetric encryption uses a public key for encryption and a private key for decryption. Symmetric encryption is the simplest and most-used technique. While asymmetric encryption takes longer to execute because of the complex logic involved, it’s a better choice from a security standpoint.

Examples of encryption

  • Data Encryption Standard (DES): DES is a low-level encryption standard that was established by the United States government in 1977. DES uses a 56-bit key and uses the block cipher method, which breaks text into 64-bit blocks and encrypts them. Because of technological advances, DES is relatively obsolete for protecting sensitive data.
  • Triple DES: Triple DES runs DES encryption three times. It encrypts, decrypts, then once again encrypts data. It strengthens the original DES standard.
  • RSA algorithm: RSA stands for Rivest, Shamir, and Adelman the inventors of the technique. The algorithm is based on the assumption that there is no efficient way to factor very large numbers. Deducing an RSA key, therefore, requires an extraordinary amount of computer processing power and time.
  • Advanced Encryption Standard (AES): As of 2002, AES is the United States government standard, replacing DES. It works at multiple network layers simultaneously and is used worldwide.

Vangie Beal
Vangie Beal is a freelance business and technology writer covering Internet technologies and online business since the late '90s.

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