What is Encryption?

Encryption is a security control that alters information from a readable to random format to prevent unauthorized access.

Encryption mechanisms convert a human-readable plain text to incomprehensible ciphertext.

Key Takeaways

  • Encryption is a process scrambling data to prevent unauthorized parties from accessing or modifying information
  • Encryption uses a cryptographic key that a sender and receiver use to decode information
  • Symmetric and Asymmetric encryption are the two main types of encryption
  • Some of the benefits of encryption include improving privacy, enhancing security, protecting data integrity, and supporting compliance

The Encryption Process

Encryption uses a cryptographic key, which is a mathematical value that both a sender and recipient have to encode and decode information.

The message sender data owner must decide the cipher or encryption algorithm that will best alter the encoding of the message. The cipher generates a variable that the sender uses as a key to make the encoded message unique. The most widely used is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

A random number generator or a computer algorithm that works as a random number generator creates encryption keys.

Reliable encryption uses a complex key, making it difficult for third-parties to crack and access readable data. When an attacker intercepts encrypted data, they have to guess the cipher the sender used to encrypt the message, as well as the encryption keys. The process is complicated and requires time, making encryption a valuable security tool.

Encryption Types

Symmetric and Asymmetric encryption are the two types of encryption.

  • Symmetric Encryption – Symmetric encryption uses one key for encryption and decryption. The symmetric key is sometimes referred to as a shared secret because the sender must share the private key with authorized entities. The most widely used symmetric-key cipher is the AES
  • Asymmetric Encryption – this form of encryption is also known as public key encryption. There are two keys for encryption and decryption in asymmetric encryption. The decryption key in asymmetric encryption is kept private, while the encryption key is shared publicly. Asymmetric encryption is the foundational technology in transport layer security (TLS). The Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) encryption algorithm is currently the most widely used public-key cipher.

Importance of Encryption

You can enhance information security by encrypting data at rest or in transit. Encryption offers the following benefits:·  

  • Encryption offers privacy – converting plaintext to ciphertext prevents unauthorized parties from reading data. The security measure prevents attackers, internet service providers, and other agencies from intercepting and retrieving sensitive information
  • Encryption enhances security – you can encrypt data to prevent breaches when sharing information over the Internet. Encryption ensures your data remains secure in case you lose your device.
  • Encryption protects data integrity – encryption protects the integrity of data transmitted over public networks. A recipient receives untampered information
  • Encryption provides authentication – you can use public-key encryption to establish the real websites using site owners private key listed in the TLS certificate
  • Encryption supports compliance – industry and government regulations require businesses to encrypt sensitive information. Encryption helps meet requirements like HIPAA, PCI DSS, and GDPR.

Encryption Attacks

Hackers deploy brute force to attack encryption. This security threat tries random keys until the hacker finds the right encryption and decryption key. Encryption strength is directly proportional to the key size. Long encryption keys require more time and resources to crack.  

Hackers can also break encryption using side-channel attacks and cryptoanalysis. These attacks target the implementation of the cipher to detect and exploit system design errors.

Downside – Hackers Use Encryption to Commit Cybercrime

Cybercriminals also use encryption to target victims. For instance, ransomware encrypts systems and devices until a target pays a ransom. Ransomware attacks feature an encryption and decryption key that attackers use to lock or open files.