What is Encryption?

We use the internet every day and everywhere we go. It’s in our homes. It’s in our offices. It’s in our cars. While it’s necessary to stay connected for so many things, it’s not necessary to sign on without protection. The latest issue that people face when browsing the internet online is that their information is not secure.

Cyber crime has continued to pick up in the past few years. New ransomware viruses have preyed on targets who don’t have protection, which allows your information to fall into the hands of criminals.

To protect consumers and businesses, the market has expanded beyond just simple firewall protection. While this used to be enough, it’s now clear that not only do threats need to be identified and prevented, but your information should also be encrypted.

Encryption is already popular within business information technology worlds, but it’s been picking up popularity within personal and private home use computers as well. Now is the time to protect yourself by encrypting your data every time that you log on the internet.

With encryption, cyber criminals cannot steal your data to abuse and use for fraud and other identity crimes.

So how does it work?

First, Take a Look at How Encryption Started

The word “kryptos” means to hide or keep secret in Greek. Encryption is meant to keep your data hidden while still allowing you to browse freely on the internet. While we can date the first instances of encryption back to cryptography in 1900 BC when the Egyptians wrote in unique hieroglyphs, encryption is still molded after this concept of cryptography that has evolved throughout the ages.

From 1933 to 1945, cryptologists developed a machine that would de-code important messages between allies and enemies in World War I and World War II. Encryption became the best way to lock down your directives so that enemies wouldn’t know where you are. The famous story of the Enigma machine and the start of modern encryption can be seen in movies like The Imitation Game.

So, you’re not alone in wanting to protect your information, and there is great reason to do so.

Modern encryption is nothing like it was before, however. Today’s encryption models are based off of the US Data Encryption Standard (DES) developed by IBM in 1976. Since then, a new AES encryption has been developed that protects data with even more tenacity.

There are also new asymmetric algorithms and authentication processes that protect user data with the latest model of encryption. This guarantees that you can send any packet of information, and it can’t be opened or read by anyone except for the intended recipient.

So What is Encryption, Really?

Encryption is a modern word that describes protecting your information (data) with cryptography and complex algorithms that are also called ciphers. New antivirus programs have added encryption because users are demanding that their information be protected while browsing online to the utmost degree. To do that, you need to be hidden.

The latest encryption models allow you to keep information secret from everyone else. It turns a typical string of plaintext data into a string of symbols and letters or what is called random ciphertext. Through this process, it’s impossible to know the original message without having the cipher to de-code the message.

For example, if you decide to write an email to your boss, encryption will protect your message as it is being delivered instantly to your boss’ inbox. He’ll see the message that you intended to send, and no one else can download the information and see it due to the encrypted file.

Encryption keys are used to create encoding and decoding for your data. A key can instantly turn your message into jibberish, but once it is opened with a key, you can see all of the contents. The encryption key is only known to you and the appropriate recipient. No one else can access your data because of this key.

Here is a visual way to look at encryption and keys:

Using encryption, any person or business can protect their emails, browsing data, messaging platforms, and any other information that you store and send online.

Breaking Encryption Down: What is an Encryption Algorithm?

As mentioned above, encryption uses algorithms, which were developed mainly during wartimes to aid in sending messages that wouldn’t be ready by the enemy. While mostly the government and bigger corporations used this type of technology in the early in the 1900s, it became more prevalent after IBM developed the DES and the article “New Directions in Cryptography” by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellmann.

Released in the 1970s, this information transformed cryptography and set up encryption for its role in modern internet use today. It led to the creation of the RSA algorithm as well, which is used on personal computers more than large corporate networks as well. Encryption has become so widely used that many web browsers and data servers use it to protect data already.

However, without your own encryption program, you can still be left vulnerable, and there are also different levels of protection. Encryption is used to protect all kinds of information, whether you are entering credit card information on a company’s website or sending an email to your co-worker in the office.

Many WiFi routers, modems, top-up boxes, SIM cards, and cloud servers also use encryption and algorithms to protect your sensitive information.

As data is communicated between two parties, such as you submitting an order at an online store, your contact and payment details are hidden thanks to encryption software. This data can be transmitted between servers and databases without ever being intercepted. Since the data is unreadable to the human eye and can’t be retrieved without the key, it becomes useless to cyber criminals and hackers.

An encryption algorithm transmits your protected data, turning your message into letters and characters that are unreadable. As it sends to the recipient, a decryption algorithm is employed to display the message to your recipient just as you originally intended.

Basically, with encryption and algorithms, all of your data is protected even when it’s being transmitted to another location.

Examples of Basic Encryption
You may remember playing cipher games as a kid where you had a decoder ring and a string of text that held a hidden message.

Let’s take a look at a few ways that encryption is used today.

When text is encrypted, it changes to a string that is unrecognizable in its meaning. You can also change the level of encryption, which leads into more modern methods of encryption.

For example, you can change the settings to a higher a key value, which means that more complex characters will be used to encrypt your message.

How Modern Encryption Works

There are two types of encryption mainly being used today:

  • Symmetric key algorithms: These use encryption keys to encrypt and decrypt information, as we have discussed above.
  • Asymmetric key algorithms: This type also uses keys, but it uses a variety of keys for encryption and decryption. This is also called Public-Key Cryptography.

Understanding Symmetric Key Encryption

Have you ever used a security deposit box at a post office? You need a key to open one. Symmetric key encryption works like this.

Perhaps you have a very important message that you want to store in your security deposit box. You place the message inside and then lock the box with a key. Now you want to take the box and send it to a friend through the postal system. When your recipient opens the box, he’ll use a copy of the key that he received previously. He’ll open the box and read the message, then he can use the same key to lock the box and send back a reply in secret.

It’s also important to note that symmetric-key algorithms separate into two categories: block ciphers and stream ciphers. With a stream cypher, you encrypt small parts of the message in pieces, delivering one at a time.

With a block cipher, you transmit data typically within 64 bits at a time, and it is encrypted together as a single unit.

Stream ciphers are considered to be more secure, but there are also a ton of different algorithms to choose in order to customize your encryption. Here are a few of the popular symmetric algorithms in use today:

  • Blowfish
  • Twofish
  • Serpent
  • AES (Rijndael)
  • CAST5
  • RC4
  • TDES
  • IDEA

This type of encryption is extremely easy to use for all parties. You only exchange the key once in order to receive and read the message, and the entire communication is still secure.

However, asymmetric encryption makes you create a new key every time that you start a string of communication with anyone.

One of the big drawbacks to using symmetric key algorithms is that the key can be copied or purposefully shared, or it can be obtained through other nefarious methods, which leaves your messages susceptible. However, it’s still very challenging and unlikely that hackers can find your key without you giving them the information one-on-one.

Symmetric key algorithms are much faster and more convenient, but what can asymmetric encryption do for you?

Understanding Asymmetric Encryption

Similar to the example above, and a bit simplified, each party has a separate lock with asymmetric encryption. In this example, the sender will ask the receiver to send his open lock through the regular postal system without sending the key.

In this asymmetric example, they can use their own keys to open the box, but if one of them should accidentally lose their key or copy it, then it can be compromised. Asymmetric encryption uses separate keys for encrypting and decrypting data. There are also two keys per message, including private and public keys. This means that the message is encrypted multiple times and can only be accessed to those who know the public and private keys.

The main benefit for this type of encryption is that you don’t have to send information in hiding over a channel that isn’t secure. While a public key is shared, you can’t access any of the data without also having a compatible private key.

There are a lot of issues with asymmetric encryption, and it’s mainly used when you want a higher level of encryption that can’t be accessed unless you are completely authorized to do so. Your key is never shared or sent using the asymmetric encryption method.

There are some disadvantages for using this type of encryption, including:

  • You’ll need to be authenticated with a public key every single time you send a message.
  • If you lose your private key, then it will be forever impossible to de-code the ciphertext.
  • It takes much longer to send asymmetric encryption data due to the complexity.

What is Ciphertext?

This is simply the text that is generated after your data goes through encryption. For example, if you send a message of “Hi, this is John,” the ciphertext comes out as “hQEmDzTqkd kdaAdS/+ kSkSzzS.” Thus, the message is embedded within these characters and useless to anyone who doesn’t have the key to access it.

How are Encryption Algorithms Created?

In a simple way, an encryption process will run a formula to transform your data in plaintext into ciphertext, which is hidden and unreadable. Ciphertext can also be decrypted. The processes work back and forth seamlessly as long as you have the key.

Algorithms are based on calculations. You can increase key value to make the calculations more complex, thus complicating the encryption even further. This allows you to send highly sensitive data without the possibility of it ever being read by an unknown third party.

Whenever you send data through encryption, an algorithm creates a string or key that processes these calculations. If you have a long encryption key with a lot of bits, then there are more patterns that can be created to protect your data.

Most encryption algorithms use block cipher because it’s easy and simple to execute. Fixed blocks of text are encrypted as one, ranging from 64 to 128 to 256 bits. However, stream method is also used. While it’s not as popular because it takes longer and is more complicated to decrypt, stream method is used to protect data one bit at a time where each binary digit has its own stream encryption.

How Does Encryption Work with Keys

You probably use a password to access most of your accounts online. Encryption and decryption uses keys in the same way. The key is like a password that can be used to encode and decode your data.

A key can also be called a passphrase, but it’s really just a random bunch of binary characters. The key shows the algorithm what patterns to detect in order to unlock the original text, converting it back to plaintext or the readable message you first sent.

The key is integral to protecting your privacy, data, messages, and all other information you want to encrypt. In fact, encryption only works because you have the key.

If you were to share your encryption key, you would be giving a hacker access to all of the information that you have encrypted before. While hackers may try to crack encryption by figuring out the key, it’s nearly impossible to do.

Keys are created from a string of letters, numbers, and special characters in an impossible amount of combinations. With a higher key value, you increase the complexity of the key, and you also increase the size of the ciphertext output.

For example, you can use something called a virtual keyboard to protect against keylogger programs, which are often used by hackers to steal passwords and important information that you type on your computer. Most keyloggers can actually log all events on your computer now. Instead of using your typical keyboard, you can use a virtual keyboard as a secondary form of input that shows up on your screen. It can’t be logged by any keylogger either.

There are also some chat services on your phone that use encryption. For example, WhatsApp encrypts all the messages that you send. This means that every time you text someone within the app, it is converted to ciphertext before it is received, which then uses a decryption key to show the original plaintext message.

What is End-to-End Encryption?

If you have a highly secure email provider, then you probably have used end-to-end encryption before. This means that no matter how you send the message within the platform, all users have protected messages from start to finish. Your data is never shared with anyone. Only the person who sends the original text message and the recipient can read it.

Basically, not even the email service or chat provider can read these messages that you send without having the key when you use end-to-end encryption.

How Can Encryption Protect You Online?

One of the main ways that you are protected when browsing online is through Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) connections. Google implemented a SSL requirement for all websites ranking in its platform in 2017. If your site does not use HTTPS and doesn’t have an SSL, then it will de-rank your website because it’s considered unsafe.

So you see the importance of encryption in today’s modern browser world.

With SSL, the data you send through a web server to a website is protected from an unwanted third party. You can tell that a website uses SSL when you see “https:/” in the URL bar or search bar.

How does this type of encryption work?

You are browsing the web on a server, which provides your web browser such as Chrome or Firefox with a certificate that includes a public key. The browser will then do a check to ensure that it has proper SSL authentication.

The browser utilizes the public key for encryption of your data as you are sending data from your web server and receiving data back from the websites that you visit. In order to read the data, the server has to use the private key to decode the cipher. All of this happens instantly without you ever seeing the process.

With this protection, only the web server is able to see your data, because only that server has access to your specific and private key.

Understanding AES

The Advanced Encryption Standard, also known as AES, works as a symmetric block cipher. The US government uses this type of encryption to protect its most classified information. It is also used in all types of programs to protect sensitive data from falling into the hands of online predators.

AES was developed in 1997 at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It was necessary at the time as many hackers had already figured out Data Encryption Standard (DES), which was developed in the 1970s. There were several brute-force attacks that caused this need to upgrade to a new standard.

The algorithm had to be capable of protecting all of the information being sent within the government. It was expected to last through the next century due to its complexity. This meant that it could endlessly protect against all types of attacks.

The development of AES was actually open to the public, and anyone could submit their ideas. NIST set up a standard that had to use block cipher that could handle larger 128 bit blocks, using multiple keys in different sizes all the way up to 256 bits.

Other features of AES include:

  • Security: Algorithms in development are always tested by their ability to prevent attacks. If one can prevent an attack faster or more completely with less vulnerabilities, then it is though to be the superior encryption algorithm.
  • Cost: It must be released to the public globally on a royalty-free basis, and individual algorithms would be reviewed for their strength and efficiency.
  • Flexible Implementation: Algorithms must be easy to implement and suitable for the hardware and software being used in the modern world.

There were originally 15 different algorithm designs that were whittled down into five algorithms that were studied and implemented for further analysis. Twofish, Serpent, RC6, Rijndael, and MARS were these original algorithms.

How Does AES Work

  • AES starts off with three different block ciphers including: AES-128, AES-192, and AES-256.
  • Each one of these ciphers is able to provide encryption and decryption of data to a block size of only 128 bits. The key sizes can be 128, 192, or 256, however.
  • Every algorithm processes blocks based on its own preferences. Basically, the algorithm can break down this block bit by bit and process calculations the same way.
  • Every block contains a certain number of bits. For example, a block may contain 128, 192, or 256 bits.
  • Key size basically represents the number of bits available in the key. For AES, key size is also related to how strong the algorithm is. With a high number of bits, the algorithm is superior in strength and provides tantamount security. This means that a 256-bit key can provide more security than a 1280-bit key.
  • Shorter keys are vulnerable to attacks within AES. However, studies have shown that it’s incredibly unlikely or almost impossible to crack an AES encryption just by using a simple brute force attack.
  • Basically, you’d have to test 1 billion key combinations per second in order to crack an AES encryption.

Can Encryption Prevent All Types of Attacks?

There are some weaknesses with encryption. They are not completely impenetrable, and although it’s unlikely that a hacker could get lucky and break through, there have been successful attempts made over the years when government agencies were involved.

The main weakness of any encryption algorithm is that sometimes keys can be shared or computers can be left open or accessed physically by those in your office. In addition, some encryption algorithms can generate recognizable patterns even if it believes them to be random.

Just like with any antivirus, new malware can exploit weaknesses found in encryption models. There are always new methods rising up on how to get around protection software, but encryption has so far proven to be the best way to keep information safe online.

With a pattern-seeking hacker, your data could be susceptible to an attack. However, the hacker would have to be extremely talented in order to spot a pattern and then crack the ciphertext. This really is only an issue with those encryption algorithms that generate predictable patterns, as a result of too many repetitive inputs.

However, even if a hacker is able to guess a predictable pattern, it’s not likely that your ciphertext would ever be decrypted anyway. This is because a hacker would still have to crack multiple cipher blocks in order to read the full message.

You’ll also need an insanely powerful computer set up to compute a crack needed for today’s algorithms. Most people don’t have this type of technology at the ready.

Do You Need to Use Encryption on Your Computer?

To be honest, you’re already using encryption most of the time that you browse online with any of the popular browsers, such as Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. However, some websites may not use SSL, which leaves you unprotected.

Most businesses also use encryption, particularly for their email and databases. As companies become more susceptible to brute force attacks that leave their customer’s information vulnerable, encryption has become a necessary piece to keeping all information private and secure.

So what can encryption help you with?

1. Protect Yourself on the Cloud
If you are thinking of using cloud storage, such as iCloud or OneDrive, then you should check the encryption policies first. Businesses also have to check that their sensitive information will be save when it is stored and shared to the cloud. Encryption can be used to hide information before it even enters the cloud so that it isn’t stored in any way that can be hacked.

2. When Using Public WiFi
While you may like to go to the coffee shop and get online, there are many other computers and devices on this network. They may not have any passwords or encryption in place to protect you either. This means that unless you use your own encryption software, you could be left vulnerable to those who are also connected and hunting down information through public networks.

3. Never Share Personal Information
If you need to send banking or credit card information online, you shouldn’t do so without using encryption. However, what if someone asks for your social security number in a customer service chat? What if you have to chat with HR about your direct deposit and bank number? If you are sending any of these messages through unprotected connections, such as a private email connection without encryption, then you leave yourself open to having your data stolen.

Email encryption is typically used for business, but it can now be used with personal email to prevent attacks as well.

4. Use Data Encryption on Your Smartphone
Your mobile phone and tablet are constantly connected to different networks. You can use things like Android for Work to reduce threats as it will protect you from unsecured apps. In addition, you can use software like mobile email encryption to protect you from hackers who want to get into your mobile email accounts.

In Conclusion

Cyber security has catapulted into a popular topic because of the brute force attacks that are constantly threatening big businesses. However, private citizens are also at risk.

Encryption is the most secure way to protect your data, especially if you are sending highly sensitive data between two parties or connecting to public networks. If you own a business, you can protect yourself better using multi-level encryption software and ensuring that your data is always sent on protected servers.