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. Encrypting 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.
In this definition...
How does encryption work?
Encryption is the process of translating data into a secret format, so 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 because 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.
What is an encryption key?
Although it appears random, encryption requires the use of an encryption key. This key consists of a unique string of characters used in combination with an algorithm to transform the plain text into cipher text and vice versa.
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. It 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.
Why is encryption important?
Individuals and organizations use encryption to maintain the secrecy of confidential information including files, personal information, Social Security numbers, correspondence, classified documents, and banking information.
The internet and other telecommunications networks and devices all have vulnerabilities that can be exploited by a cyberattack. Information can even be leaked and accessed by unauthorized parties through negligence and with no criminal intent. Encryption ensures that any disclosed information cannot be understood or used by unauthorized parties.
On the other hand, encryption can be used in a ransomware attack. Attackers attempt to access a system or device, encrypt or decrypt data, and threaten to expose or cut off access to the data until demands are met.
Data that is tampered with in transit can be the vehicle of a cyberattack and non-malicious amendments to data by unauthorized parties. Encryption achieves data integrity by ensuring it arrives exactly as it was sent.
Simply having or using a private encryption key can serve as a means of authenticating the identity of the key owner or proving that they are authorized to access the data. Public key encryption can also be used to establish that a website owner owns the private key listed in a website’s SSL (Secure Socket Layer) or TLS (Transport Layer Security) certificate.
Regulations may demand encryption for certain data, communications, and storage, including:
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
- Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
- Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS)
- General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
- Fair Credit Practices Act (FCPA)
Encryption also secures internet browsing data transfer through Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), which combines Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) with the SSL/TLS protocol. Some search engines have policies favoring websites that comply with the HTTPS protocol.
History of encryption
Encryption dates back to antiquity and became more systematically used for modern military purposes beginning in the 19th century.
For example, the Wheel Cipher—a form of cipher developed by Thomas Jefferson in the 1700s—was used by the U.S. Army from 1922 to the beginning of World War II. Cracking German codes contributed to the U.S. entering World War I, while cracking Germany’s Enigma system was key to the Allied victory of World War II.
DES is no longer secure against brute force attacks due to advances in computing power and has been replaced by the RSA system. The development of quantum computing, which processes data thousands of times faster than modern computers, could have the same effect. Current public-key encryption, elliptic curve cryptography, and symmetric key encryption could become vulnerable and ransomware could become harder to crack.
On the other hand, quantum computing would also bring an advance in encryption. New post-quantum cryptography standards are currently being developed.