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February 22, 2020

What is Encryption? Everything You Need to Know



In today’s digital world, pretty much all information is available at the touch of your fingers online. As a matter of fact, even information that you would rather keep private or have never shared with anyone could be a simple Google search away.

This is why as technology has become more advanced and hackers have found their workarounds, cybersecurity has risen as a dominant field in the online space. With that, encryption has become integral to the secure passage and storage of information for billions of users who share their information online, whether to make a purchase, answer a questionnaire, and more.

So, what exactly is encryption? In cryptography, encryption is the process of encoding a message or information in a way that only authorized parties can access it and those who are not authorized cannot.

In this blog, we’re covering everything you need to know about encryption, including how it came to be, where it is used, and how it works. Let’s get started!

Encryption: A Brief History

Believe it or not, encryption has been around since nearly the beginning of time.

The first methods of encryption recorded were in 600 B.C. when the ancient Spartans dominated the lands. The Spartans would use a device called a scytale, which consisted of a leather strap wrapped around a wooden rod, to send secret messages during battle. The letters on the leather strip are meaningless when it's unwrapped, and only if the recipient had the correctly sized rod would the message make sense.

In 1553, the first cipher (writing in code) is invented, using a proper encryption key that is able to crack it. This code is an agreed-upon keyword that the recipient needs to know if he or she wants to decode the message.

The Playfair Cipher was invented in 1854, which encrypts pairs of letters instead of single ones, making it harder to crack. A more powerful predecessor, the Enigma machine, was invented in 1917. It encoded a substitution table that was changed every time a new character was typed and would not get cracked until 1932, playing a key role in the success of WWII for the Allies.

By 1945, cryptography stepped into the scene with the publishing of a popular paper titled, “A mathematical theory of cryptography." The first company to use encryption was IBM in the early 1970s. The company created a block cipher to protect customer data. In 1973, the U.S. adopted it as a national standard called the Data Encryption Standard (DES). It remained in use until it was cracked in 1997.

In 2000, the DES was replaced by the Advanced Encryption Standard, or AES, which was discovered through a competition open to the public. Today it continues to be in use and is available globally.

The challenge comes with the growth of the online space as more data and services enter the cloud, increasing the possibility of a threat to security. Cryptographers are constantly evolving and creating solutions to this challenge. 

Who Uses Encryption? 

What types of data require encryption? Statistics show that payment-related data has the highest levels of encryption by corporate companies worldwide, followed closely by financial records.

Encryption is the best possible form of security out there for online data. Other reasons why an enterprise may use encryption include to protect:
     Employee/HR data
     Intellectual property
     Customer information
     Non-financial business information
     Healthcare information

Encryption was almost exclusively used by governments, the military, and large enterprises until the late 1970s. Today, these groups continue to use encryption — however, it is now more available to the general public across various industries. The individual person can encrypt a personal piece of technology like a laptop if they had the capacity to do so. 

How Does Encryption Work?

In computing, unencrypted data is also known as plaintext, and encrypted data is called ciphertext. The formulas used to encode and decode messages are called encryption algorithms or ciphers.

There are three major components to any encryption system:
     The data
     The encryption engine
     The key management

If you’re creating encryption, the first thing to do is to decide which cipher will best disguise the meaning of the message and what variable to use as a key to ensuring the encoded message is unique. The most widely used types of ciphers fall into two categories: symmetric and asymmetric.

Why is encryption important? Encryption helps for a few reasons:
     Confidentiality: Will encode the content of a message
     Authentication: Identifies and verifies the origin of the message
     Integrity: Ensures the content of the message has not been modified and is original as it was sent
     Nonrepudiation: Prevents senders from denying they sent an encrypted message.

Encryption is a powerful tool in ensuring the safety of information in the digital space. Hackers have become increasingly advanced in their methods, and no one is safe. Whether you’re a single person or leader of an organization, make sure the proper encryption security measures are in place to protect your important data.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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