Last Updated: February 2, 2023
Encryption is a commonly encountered term in the digital era, so it’s very probable that you’ve heard it too—but what exactly does it entail? If you’re not sure what encryption is, this article can resolve all your doubts on the topic and provide additional information on why and when encryption is used, as well as define the different types of encryption that are in use today.
What Is Encryption?
Encryption is the process of converting information from a readable form (plaintext) into an incomprehensible form (ciphertext). This process is applied to human-readable texts that contain data, which are then transformed into a string of characters that appear random. This seemingly random string of characters is referred to as encrypted text, and it’s incomprehensible to anyone until it is turned back into decrypted text.
Although there are various encryption methods, they all require a cryptographic key—a previously agreed on set of mathematical values that are known to both the sender and the recipient of the message. Data can and should be encrypted in two cases:
- While it is ‘at rest’, i.e. while it is stored somewhere, like on a computer hard drive or a removable storage unit.
- While it is ‘in transit, i.e. while it’s being transported somewhere else via the internet.
If the data is encrypted, it can’t be understood by third parties even if it’s intercepted, as it can’t be understood by anyone unless they have the key. And if the most secure encryption is implemented, it is very unlikely that the data will be decrypted by guessing the key, or, in other words, by a brute force attack.
|DID YOU KNOW: The term encryption originates from the science of cryptography. The root of the word comes from the Greek words ‘Kryptos’ (hidden), and ‘graphein’ (word).|
How Does Encryption Work?
When you break down the encryption process, it all seems quite straightforward. There are three levels of encryption that take place in a specific order.
- Plaintext – by using an encryption algorithm, unencrypted data is translated into a cipher.
- The encrypted text (ciphertext) – the cipher or the encrypted text is unreadable to anyone while it is being transmitted from one location to another, or while it is being held in storage somewhere.
- Decrypted text (initial plaintext) – when the encrypted message needs to be accessed, only the key holders can gain access to it. This data is then transformed into decrypted text that can only be seen by the message sender and authorized recipients.
|DID YOU KNOW: In case you have any concerns regarding the file transfers you conduct with your Android phone, you should know that an FTP client for Android provides a secure connection between your mobile phone and the device you want to transfer your files onto.|
Types of Encryption
There are two main encryption types—symmetric and asymmetric. The biggest difference between the two is in the number of keys used during the encryption process—the symmetric type uses the same key for both encryption and decryption, while the asymmetric one uses one public key for encryption and another private key for decryption.
This encryption type is referred to as public-key encryption. This is a relatively new encryption method and it’s generally considered to be more secure due to the fact that it uses two encryption keys. Even though the encryption key is public and anyone can access it, the decryption key is private and only available to those that the message was intended for, i.e. those who were previously granted access to the asymmetric key.
This type of encryption is less secure due to the fact that it utilizes only one key. All parties included in the encryption process have to access the same secret symmetric key for encoding/decoding. Even though this encryption method is older, it’s still very commonly used for transmitting large quantities of data, due to the fact that the encryption is less complex and it’s executed faster.
Today, there are various algorithms in use that are based on encryption that is either symmetric or asymmetric, but before we dive into the details, let’s see what encryption algorithms are.
What Is an Encryption Algorithm?
An encryption algorithm is a program executed by a computer that scrambles the data to keep it safe from unauthorized access. The algorithm ensures that unauthorized users or hackers can’t access any sensitive information, thus protecting the integrity and confidentiality of online data transfers of all kinds. We’ve singled out the three most commonly used algorithms and decided to take a deeper look into them.
The Triple Data Encryption Standard (3DES) is based on the Data Encryption Standard (DES) – but instead of once, it runs the encryption three times. The encryption techniques in this protocol take the same data and encrypt it, decrypt it, and encrypt it again. This way, the traditional DES encryption is strengthened, so it can be used to protect sensitive data.
There are two types of 3DES: two-key and three-key, according to the number of keys that are generated during a single encryption process. One of the questions that commonly arise when discussing the DES protocol is ‘is DES symmetric or asymmetric? Well, the answer is that it uses symmetric-key encryption, and this key is small in size, usually with 56-bit encryption.
Who Uses 3DES?
Even though 3DES encryption is not as widely used as it once was, it’s still a popular encryption choice in financial industries.
The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is an encryption protocol used worldwide, although it was primarily created for use by the US government. This is often considered the best encryption method—it uses a symmetric block cipher to ensure maximum cybersecurity for classified documents and other digital data.
This protocol is very efficient in its basic 128-bit form, but it also uses 192-bit and 256-bit forms for encrypting classified communications. As the length of the keys increases the encryption is more difficult to crack, although it’s still vulnerable to a potential brute force attack.
The answer to the question ‘Is AES symmetric or asymmetric?’ is that it is an asymmetric method for encryption. This protocol is reevaluated every 5 years, so some features can be improved and some flaws fixed.
Who Uses AES?
The AES encryption protocol is used by the US government and by much other public and private organizations due to the level of security it provides. Some experts believe that in the future this protocol will become the standard encryption protocol even in private industries.
The RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) encryption protocol got its name after the initials of the three scientists that created it. This protocol uses strong cryptography algorithms for encryption, which is one of the reasons why it’s used for transmitting sensitive data. This protocol is asymmetric since it uses two keys for encoding and decoding messages. In case someone wants to break this encryption protocol, they will need quite some time and a large amount of processing power.
Who Uses RSA?
The RSA protocol is used very often and RSA encryption examples can be found in many web browsers, between VPN servers and VPN clients, email services, and other communication services to encrypt private and sensitive messages that are sent via the Internet on a daily basis.
|DID YOU KNOW: Google accounts are often used to store passwords, but if you’re worried about the encryption implemented and the level of security, you should look into the best password manager available, or a password manager you can use while you’re offline.|
|Encryption is the process of encoding data so it cannot be read without the correct cipher or key.|
|Encryption technologies scramble readable text into an unrecognizable string of symbols, so no unauthorized party can access it.|
|There are two main differentiations in encryption—symmetric and asymmetric.|
|Hash functions and digital signatures are used in addition to traditional techniques of encryption in order to provide better levels of security.|
|The three main encryption techniques currently in use are the 3DES, the AES, and the RSA.|
What Else Do You Need to Know About Encryption?
As you’ve probably learned if you’ve read this far along, encryption provides a good level of protection for anyone that utilizes it—but it is not infallible. So, if you want the most secure encryption possible, there are some additional measures for ensuring maximum security.
Hashing isn’t an encryption method, it’s a one-way function that provides authentication for selected files or documents. Taking a large file as input, hashing produces a smaller file as output, sometimes referred to as the ‘fingerprint’ of the original file. Users can then compare the two files and see if they differ from each other in any way—even if just one character is changed in the original file, the hash output will be different.
Even though the hashing function is often used in addition to encryption, it differs from traditional encryption methods in that it is irreversible. Rather than being identical to the initial data that’s been fed to the algorithm, the hashing result is a fixed length value of ones and zeroes, known as a digest, which is always the same size regardless of the size of the original file. The digest is always predictable—if you run the same data through the hashing algorithm, you will always get the same result.
The main difference between hashing and other types of encryption is that hashing results cannot be reverted back to their original form, unlike encrypted data that is later decrypted.
Digital certificates, also known as digital signatures, are used to determine whether the encrypted information you’re receiving has been altered, where it’s coming from, and who’s decrypting it. These signatures identify the details of both the recipient and the sender of the encrypted data by using various methods of encryption.
A certification authority can issue you a digital certificate that contains your name, a unique serial number, a unique private key, and an expiry date, in addition to the name of the authority issuing the certificate in question. Once you’ve received this certificate, you can use it for various purposes online.
|DID YOU KNOW: The hash function SHA-2 is combined with asymmetric encryption and it’s used as a security measure in Bitcoin.|
Why Use Encryption?
Even if you think that you don’t have any sensitive information online, you should keep in mind that most information systems are online in the digital era we are living in, so encryption is necessary even for the most mundane online activities. Below we’ve listed the most important reasons why you need to use at least one of the various types of encryption available today.
Whether at rest or in transit, encrypted data is protected from data breaches. In case a device containing properly encrypted data gets stolen, the data will be safe and resistant to manipulations. The same goes for online communication, which cannot be leaked if properly encrypted.
Encryption protects in-transit data from on-path attacks. This ensures that the data received by the intended recipient hasn’t been altered or tampered with while it was traveling.
All encryption types guarantee privacy, so no one can read the communication between the data owner and the intended recipient. This means that the data being transmitted is safe from attackers, ISPs (Internet Service Providers), and even government interception.
Encryption keys protect data stored online with the help of digital signature encryption protocols that make sure the data reaches the right person in its original, unaltered form.
|DID YOU KNOW: Some encryptions require a third-party intervention. A trusted third party (TTP) is engaged in facilitating interactions between the two parties that are exchanging digital information in order to ensure that the exchanged content is not fraudulent.|
In the era of online communication, data encryption is a necessity, protecting everything from everyday email correspondence to digitally stored sensitive information. Different systems use varying levels of encryption, so you can rest assured all of your personal data on the internet is protected from malicious attacks, and even if someone gains access to it, it cannot be easily read and used against you.
There are two main encryptions—symmetric and asymmetric. The symmetric one is more commonly used in the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and in the Data Encryption Standard (DES), while the asymmetric one is found in the RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) protocol.
Although there are numerous methods of encryption, the most widely used encryption method is the AES, which is present in many apps, VPNs, in Wi-Fi security, and plenty of other security protocols.
From a security viewpoint, AES is better than RSA because it’s more secure while having the same bit size. However, AES uses symmetric encryption and it can’t be used by SSL certificates, which require an asymmetric type of encryption, implemented by RSA.
Among the various types of encryption, the AES 256 is impossible to crack using brute force, and the computing power required to crack it in a different way is still not available.