A significant part of communication in the modern world takes place online. Of course, this refers both to private and business correspondence. But as the digital world continues to thrive, its security risks become more severe, jeopardizing sensitive data.
That’s where data encryption comes in to save the day. This technology can keep your information secure from outside malicious factors, allowing only select individuals to see what’s written behind the code.
This article will explain how data encryption works and why it should become a crucial piece of your data security toolset.
Summary: Data encryption ensures data privacy and confidentiality. The technology uses advanced encryption methods to transform information into a nearly unbreakable code. Different data encryption models have become commonplace online. In fact, a large part of all internet traffic is already encrypted in some way.
What is Data Encryption?
Data encryption represents a security solution to the ever-present risk of a data breach. The solution is relatively simple in concept: Information is transformed into code that can be read only with a specific key.
In essence, it’s not much different than the coding techniques used in the military. Historically, quality-made codes were notoriously hard to crack. Think, for example, of the famous German Enigma code from WWII – that one was only broken when the Allies seized an Enigma machine.
In the digital environment, data encryption tools took over the role of analog coding machines. Encryption methods became more sophisticated, and, naturally, so did the code-breaking tools.
At first, this area of digital security adhered to a universal data encryption standard, but the technology didn’t take long to outgrow that standardization. Today, encryption is handled by powerful algorithms.
How is Data Encryption Used?
Data encryption changes plaintext data into ciphertext. Even if you aren’t familiar with these terms, their meaning should be easy to understand.
Plaintext is data provided in – plain text. In other words, it hasn’t been encrypted in any way and can be accessed simply by reading.
On the other hand, ciphertext is encrypted data that only authorized users can access. When you send this encrypted data out, only people with the right decryption key can view it.
As mentioned, a significant amount of digital data is encrypted in some way. Government agencies, companies, organizations, social networks, and even private individuals use encryption to keep their information safe. Of course, the level of data encryption isn’t the same across the board – it ranges from rudimentary to intelligence or military-grade.
Why Data Encryption Matters
With the current level and intensity of cyber-crime, it’s very hard or even impossible to keep your data from being intercepted or otherwise hijacked. Network security solutions are available, but between advanced hacking attacks, malware, and other data breach techniques, keeping your info completely safe has become quite challenging.
Data encryption doesn’t stop digital criminals from trying to get to your data. Instead, it makes the information indecipherable for unauthorized users.
If encrypted data gets intercepted, breaking the encryption scheme will require additional effort and resources on the criminal’s part. Plus, their success isn’t guaranteed, even with advanced decoding tools. In many cases, the computing power necessary to crack the code is beyond what criminals have available or are willing to invest.
By making access to information increasingly challenging, data encryption actively discourages data theft. It puts potential thieves on unfamiliar ground. In contrast, unencrypted or poorly secured information can be seen as an open invitation for cyber-crime.
Furthermore, data encryption software can provide protection against internal as well as external threats.
Imagine a contractor or part-time worker who can access the sensitive information of the organization currently employing them. In theory, there’s nothing stopping them from copying the stored digital data from the company’s computer systems. In practice, this is more or less what Edward Snowden did with the NSA files.
In such cases, it might be hard to prevent data from being copied. However, employing a data encryption solution would render the information useless for anyone without a decryption key.
Types of Data Encryption
Data encryption falls into two categories: symmetric and asymmetric. Furthermore, the encryption can happen in different stages of data: when it’s at rest, in transit, or in both cases.
Let’s look at each data encryption type in more detail.
Symmetric encryption uses the same secret key to encrypt and decrypt data. This is why the method is also called symmetric key encryption or secret key encryption.
The same key used to encrypt data is first sent to the recipient. The encryption key is usually a set of letters and numbers. Once the recipient gets the key, the ciphertext message will come in and be decrypted on the receiving end.
Symmetric encryption ensures no one except the sender and recipient can access the data. This method is relatively simple yet quite effective, but it comes with certain limitations.
For instance, this type of key encryption will be useful mostly for sharing data one-on-one and in smaller sets. It won’t be practical for public use like websites or social media.
Types of symmetric encryption
The symmetric variant of data encryption comes in several types:
Data encryption standard
Triple data encryption standard
Advanced encryption standard
All these are different algorithms used for data encryption with symmetric keys.
The first is the outdated data encryption standard (DES) that was used in the earliest days of the internet. Today, the standard has become abandoned due to its security gaps. Still, the data encryption standards that followed built on the foundation of the initial algorithm.
Triple DES (3DES) represents an upgrade to the original. As the name implies, this algorithm type encrypts data three times using several encryption keys.
In 3DES, the original data is encrypted using one key, decrypted with a second one, and encrypted again with a third key. This results in greater security compared to the old DES, although it still falls short of algorithms like the advanced encryption standard (AES).
AES encrypts data using a more sophisticated method that differs from DES and 3DES. For that reason, AES is the safest option among the three mentioned so far.
Finally, Twofish is in the category of open-source data encryption algorithms. This encryption protocol uses a special tool to make code breaking even harder: key-dependent, pre-computed substitution boxes.
Designed to make the ciphertext-key relationship more obscure, Twofish is extremely secure.
What is symmetric encryption used for?
Symmetric data encryption solutions find the most use in banking. In particular, they play a significant role in credit card payments.
Besides that, this encryption type is used to protect data at rest. This refers to any data that are not sent through a network but is instead stored.
Asymmetric encryption uses multiple encryption keys rather than one. A public key is used to encrypt data. Then, recipients use their own encryption keys to decode the message. The recipient’s key is called a private key.
The first key is available to all users. However, public key cryptography ensures that only people with a corresponding private key can access the encrypted data.
Unlike the symmetric variant, asymmetric encryption doesn’t exchange private encryption keys. At the same time, a larger number of users can access the information. This makes the asymmetric method better suited for organization networks where a one-on-one approach wouldn’t be practical.
Types of Asymmetric encryption
Different encryption algorithms are used for various purposes in asymmetric encryption. Prominent examples include:
Rivest Shamir Adleman (RSA)
Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC)
Digital Signature Algorithm (DSA)
The Diffie-Hellman method is used for session key management. This algorithm is only relevant for key exchange – it doesn’t provide private or public key encryption.
The RSA represents one of the earliest encryption key management systems. The algorithm was the first to perform public key encryption and pair it with private key use.
ECC is essentially the same type of algorithm as RSA. The algorithm’s public and private key encryption is an upgrade to the RSA method. Today, ECC stands for one of the most powerful and safest data encryption solutions.
El Gamal is possibly even more robust than ECC. It has become a widespread tool for various cryptosystems.
Lastly, the DSA is an encryption algorithm dedicated to digital signatures.
How Is Asymmetric encryption used?
Asymmetric encryption is most commonly used for data exchange and confidentiality, as well as for digital signatures.
When the receiver gets the encrypted sensitive data, the data hash can be sent along. Once unpacked using the decryption key, the hash can be compared to the original to ensure package integrity wasn’t compromised. This function is particularly important in bitcoin and digital cash transactions.
When it comes to authentication via digital signatures, the process functions in reverse:
The private key is sent out and confirmed using the corresponding public key. In this case, matching the private to the public key determines whether the sender’s identity can be confirmed or not.
Data at Rest Encryption
We’ve already mentioned that at-rest data can be encrypted. This means users can encrypt the data that is being stored.
This encryption method isn’t limited by storage type. The available options include:
Cloud data encryption
Portable data storage device encryption
Disk encryption is, of course, used for any type of computer drive, whether it’s a hard or solid-state drive.
This data protection method is also available for smart devices, external hard drives, and USB memories. When encrypted, data will be safe even on lost or stolen devices, especially if full disk encryption is used.
Cloud-based encryption often comes as a base service offered by cloud storage providers.
Similarly, sensitive data at rest can be protected on database servers.
It’s worth noting that data at rest is the more common target of hacking attacks. This is because at-rest data is structured more logically compared to data in transit. Also, data at rest will usually contain the most sensitive information.
In the cases where data theft created significant losses, the target of the attack was data at rest. Sometimes the physical data storage units were stolen – a situation where full disk encryption would’ve come in handy.
Data in Transit Encryption
Modern encryption algorithms are built to protect data moving between users via a network. This is precisely the type of information we mean when talking about data in transit.
There are many risks of sensitive data being intercepted or viewed online. If that happens, either due to a lack of encryption or poor key management, both the sender and receiver might be exposed to data breaches.
This also means your data could be caught on its way to or from cloud storage. And, of course, the same applies when sending information through websites or email.
For this reason, online storage services use advanced tools like the cloud computing security model.
All of the mentioned issues can be resolved with proper data security solutions. Encrypted data in transit can be secured further, especially if the encryption algorithm follows the best practices of information technology security evaluation.
As would be expected, many online services already use some kind of data encryption. For instance, Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocols are used to encrypt data exchanged between a website and a browser.
In addition, there are several types of internet protocol security, encrypting data that makes up a large part of online traffic.
How Organizations Benefit From Data Encryption Software
Protecting data is a key concern for every business. When an organization employs the available cryptographic services, it can feel much more secure from external and internal threats.
To that end, some organizations use commercially available data encryption solutions, while others utilize their own encryption software. In either case, secure data transmission and storage will depend on how robust the entire system is.
Data security isn’t only about encryption algorithms. Besides encrypting data in transit or at rest, the best data encryption services will provide seamless control over every security aspect.
Firstly, the system can provide centralized management where each encryption key can be controlled. Here, users can also manage key policies and configure how encryption algorithms are used.
Next, the system should allow for foolproof end-to-end encryption on several levels. It’s possible to encrypt sensitive data at the application, database, and file levels.
Different levels of encryption can be quite helpful. For instance, multi-level encryption can allow for easier backups while the information stays secure.
That way, even if a user remotely erased data from the cloud storage, an encrypted copy would remain at another location.
Data encryption can also have some niche uses. This is the case with protecting copyrighted content, where encrypting data can provide assistance to digital rights management systems.
Data Encryption Advantages
Besides the mentioned benefits, data encryption represents a convenient security solution in several other regards.
First, encrypting data is less costly than some other data security measures.
Next, encrypted data is secured separately from the system or devices it passes through. In other words, good encryption will make the information safe even if the computers sending and receiving it aren’t properly secured.
Third, data loss can lead to regulatory fines in some cases. Encryption helps prevent such scenarios. At the same time, greater information safety may improve trust in businesses.
Finally, encryption is necessary for remote work. When sensitive documents need to go back and forth, proper end-to-end encryption will have to be in place.
Data Encryption Disadvantages
A particularly robust encryption system may be taxing on the device using it. Certain encryption methods, particularly asymmetric ones, take more time to process information. As a result, they might slow down the rest of the system.
Losing passwords and encryption keys is another risk. If this happens, users can get locked out of accessing crucial documents. Even if there’s another way of getting to the wanted information, password recovery will represent an unnecessary delay in everyday operations.
Lastly, encryption systems impose certain restrictions on how data is used. If an organization doesn’t take those restrictions into account, encryption could become less effective or interfere with regular work.
Data Encryption Examples
Since encryption is used all across the digital landscape, it’s not hard to find some representative examples.
Encryption examples include:
Filesystem or device encryption
A digital certificate can be used to confirm the identity of an organization. Companies may apply for such certificates from the appropriate authorities and be issued a certificate containing their name and public key.
This can be very useful in verifying websites. If a genuine site is sent the key from the certificate, it should have no trouble decoding it and returning communication.
Authentication protocols often rely on encryption keys to confirm the identity of information services, devices, or smart cards.
These protocols function based on the asymmetric system and verify authenticity by matching corresponding keys.
Rather than the entire system, individual files can be encrypted for additional security. Of course, if the file system is encrypted as well, that can only improve data safety further.
Communication in this sense doesn’t mean two people are exchanging messages. Instead, communication is conducted between machines. We’ve mentioned how browsers and websites communicate through encryption, and you’ve likely heard of the standard used on those occasions. The standard in question is SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer, a staple in online security.
Certain encryption technologies like digital certification can be used as proof of transaction. In this case, encryption prevents people from claiming they didn’t make a transaction such as a purchase.
Filesystem and Device Encryption
It’s possible to encrypt an entire filesystem like a computer hard drive. The encrypted system will be completely inaccessible without the right key or password. As a result, the files on it will also be protected, even if they aren’t encrypted individually.
The same technique can be applied to devices like tablets, smartphones, or similar technology.
How Hackers Try to Break Encryption
Hackers have many tools available to attempt to breach encrypted data. They rely on some common weak points:
Key management issues
Weak or misused algorithms
Key Management Issues
The most common way hackers can crack encrypted information is by figuring out passwords.
Many keys rely on passwords, which can make them vulnerable to cyberattacks. This is particularly the case when the password used is weak.
Weak or Misused Algorithms
Certain algorithms have built-in weak points. If a developer uses an algorithm without being aware of such shortcomings, the flaws in the system become easy to exploit.
A side channel is a system data leak that happens unintentionally. These data leaks create a back door into the system, which can be taken advantage of by experienced hackers.
Algorithms can be stream or block ciphers. The block type isn’t as efficient, leading many developers to use the stream cipher variant.
Unfortunately, due to the way stream ciphers encrypt data, hackers could modify the encryption without being detected.
Using your own algorithm instead of a standardized option may be the riskiest thing to do in terms of data security. Custom protocols may have unpredictable weak points, leaving an open route for information theft.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is data encryption used for?
Data encryption is used to protect sensitive information against external and internal threats.
How does encryption work?
Encryption transforms plaintext into a coded format that requires a key to decode.
How to prevent hacking attempts?
It might be impossible to prevent hackers from trying to get access to your info. However, encryption will make most of their attempts futile.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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