People have always wanted to disguise or protect sensitive information from unintended eyes. In 1900 BC, Egyptian noblemen used a simple hieroglyphic substitution in the tomb of Khnumhotep, altering one symbol for another. This was one of the earliest forms of encryption.
By 700 BC, Sparta was using a new form of encryption called the scytale transposition cipher. This form of encryption changes the position of the letters in the document rather than changing the letters themselves.
Encryption is a way of scrambling data so that only authorized parties can understand the information.
In this blog, we will break down how encryption works and its different types, how it is used, and why it is important.
How Does Encryption Work?
Encryption is the process of taking data in an email, web form, or text message and scrambling it into an unreadable format. This format is called “ciphertext”. Essentially, it takes readable data and alters it so that it appears random.
For this process to work correctly, it requires the use of a random and unique cryptographic key. Like a physical key, a cryptographic key locks (encrypts) data so that only someone with the right key can unlock (decrypt) it. Keys are created with algorithms, which are just a set of instructions for solving a problem or accomplishing a task.
There are two types of encryption systems: symmetric and asymmetric. The symmetric method uses a single password to encrypt and decrypt data. Symmetric encryption tends to be faster than asymmetric encryption. The common example of symmetric encryption is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), which was initially designed to protect the government’s sensitive information. AES is pretty much the standard for all things encryption, mainly because the 256-bit key takes an extremely long time to crack.
The asymmetric method uses two keys for encryption and decryption. A public key, which is shared among the users, encrypts the data. A private key, which is not shared, decrypts the data. The Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) algorithm is the most popular example of the asymmetric method. With RSA, the public and private keys can be used to encrypt a message, and whatever is not used becomes the decryption key.
How is It Used?
When you clicked on this blog post, whether on your laptop, phone, or tablet, you may have noticed a padlock symbol in the address bar. That symbol indicates the connection between your device and the website is encrypted using SSL/TLS encryption. It is highly recommended to avoid any sites that have a “not secure” warning in the address bar instead!
If you are sending emails back and forth through Gmail or Yahoo!, those emails are protected through encryption by default, if the person on the other end can also send and receive encrypted messages.
Every time you swipe your credit card or buy something from Amazon, you are relying on AES to protect your payment information.
Encryption technology is also used in some messaging tools. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are two of the most popular platforms offering it.
To protect locally stored data, even hard drives can be encrypted. In this case, the encryption is tied to the login identity of the user and the key is generated and applied automatically. Because the key is tied to the login of the user, if a thief were to steal the drive and try to connect it somewhere else, they would not be able to access the data.
Why is Encryption Important?
Internet privacy concerns are real. Encryption helps protect your online privacy by turning sensitive information into messages only for the people that need to see them.
Encryption is important because it allows you to protect your data from unauthorized access. It is foundational to cybersecurity due to its ability to provide confidentiality, integrity, authentication, and non-repudiation.
By encoding the message, only the intended audience can access the encrypted data, keeping it confidential. Encrypting messages proves that message has not been changed since it was sent, ensuring integrity.
Encryption methods allow you to verify the origin of the message, adding an extra layer of authentication. Once data is sent, the sender cannot deny they sent the encrypted message. This process is known as non-repudiation.
Using encryption can help prevent data breaches, data leaks, brute force attacks, and other cyber-attacks. Depending on the industry, it is even required by law. For example, in the United States, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires businesses to properly secure health information.
Cybercriminals are getting more and more skilled at accessing sensitive data. Large amounts of personal information are managed online and stored in the cloud or on servers that are connected to the Internet. It’s nearly impossible to do business of any kind without your personal data being stored somewhere, which is why encryption is important.
Both symmetrical and asymmetrical methods offer different types of protection depending on security needs. The best practice is to make sure any website or application you use offers some form of protection. Also, keep in mind that there are outdated encryption methods out there. Stay far away from anything that still uses DES!