Table of Contents
Decades ago, sensitive information was mostly shared using printed materials, and this practice continues today. However, the rise of electronic communication and computerized data storage has brought new challenges. While electronic methods have many benefits, they also come with significant risks. Hackers can intercept information during transmission, leading to unauthorized access to sensitive data. These breaches have had serious consequences, such as warfare, economic crises, and business failures. Thankfully, encryption provides a powerful solution to reduce these risks.
What is Encryption?
Encryption is a security process that converts information and data into an unreadable code, ensuring sensitive information remains protected from unauthorized access. It uses complex algorithms to transform data into an encrypted form, making it nearly impossible to access without the correct decryption key.
Encryption works hand in hand with decryption, which reverses the encryption process once the information reaches its intended destination. Decryption allows authorized recipients to access the information by converting encrypted files or data into readable formats.
For example, encryption can turn a readable article into a mix of text, numbers, and symbols, making it unreadable to humans. This process is part of cryptography, encompassing both encryption and decryption. The original, unencrypted data is called plaintext, while the transformed, encrypted data is known as ciphertext.
Types of Encryption
In the realm of computer encryption, a key component known as the “key” plays a crucial role. It’s important to note that the term “key” does not refer to a physical key like the ones used for cars or doors. Instead, it refers to a set of texts or parameters used in an encryption algorithm to encode or decode data. The key significantly affects the transformation process and acts as a specific input to the encryption method.
There are two main types of encryption: symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption.
1. Symmetric Encryption
Symmetric encryption relies on a single key for both encrypting and decrypting files. This key must be shared with the recipient to enable decryption. While it’s common practice to keep decryption keys secret, symmetric encryption requires a different approach. Authorized recipients or concerned parties need access to these keys, which is why they’re often called “shared secrets.” This characteristic distinguishes symmetric encryption from asymmetric encryption.
2. Asymmetric Encryption
Also known as “public key encryption,” asymmetric encryption employs both a public key and a private key. In symmetric encryption, it is crucial to keep the encryption keys secret. In contrast, asymmetric encryption utilizes a “public key encryption” that anyone can access and use to encrypt data intended for the key owner. However, to decrypt an encrypted file, the private key, kept secret by the owner, is required. Public key algorithms mathematically link these public and private keys and generate them. Simply put, public key encryption begins with the receiver’s public key, not the sender’s, as it is used to encrypt the message.
Symmetric encryption isn’t necessarily less secure than asymmetric encryption. However, asymmetric encryption enhances security by using two keys, which removes the need to share the exact encryption key. This unique feature makes it significantly challenging for hackers to obtain the decryption key, even if they intercept electronic communications—a known vulnerability in symmetric encryption. In certain situations, sharing the decryption key through email has compromised the encryption objective in symmetric systems.
Symmetric Vs. Asymmetric Encryption
When comparing these two encryption types, each has its strengths and weaknesses. For instance, symmetric encryption is preferred for its faster processing speed, making it ideal for encrypting large files. Users often adopt a hybrid approach that combines the advantages of both methods. They utilize the speed of symmetric encryption to encrypt files and leverage the key secrecy of asymmetric encryption to encrypt the symmetric key. This approach allows secure transmission of both encrypted files and the key, mitigating the risks of interception or tampering. The recipient first employs their private key to unlock the symmetric encryption key, enabling them to decrypt the files.
How Does Encryption Work?
Encryption algorithms serve as the engine behind the conversion of plaintexts into ciphertexts. To perform the encryption process, the user utilizes a key. Similarly, the recipient needs a key to decrypt the information (ciphertext) and convert it back into a readable format (plaintext). The specific key required for the decryption process depends on the type of encryption used. Here are some examples of encryption algorithms:
- Symmetric: SNOW (SNOW 1.0, 2.0 & 3G), Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), and Triple Data Encryption Algorithm (3DEA), also known as Triple DES (3-DES) because it was derived from Data Encryption Standard (DES), which is now outdated.
- Asymmetric: Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) algorithm and Elliptic curve cryptography (ECC).
How Encryption Enhances Data Security
Encryption and decryption are fundamental to the security architecture of many applications, protecting data at rest and ensuring secure data flow. Encryption methods are utilized in various sectors, including payment intermediaries, e-commerce, online platforms, government databases, and regulatory compliance measures. They play a critical role in maintaining data integrity and confidentiality, both within individual applications and during data transmission.
Real-World Applications of Encryption
Encryption finds practical application in several areas, reinforcing data security in different contexts:
1. Secure Communication
Encryption is vital for establishing secure communication channels, especially in web browsing. Web browsers are programmed to warn users against providing sensitive information on websites that use the ordinary “HTTP” protocol instead of “HTTPS.” The “S” in “HTTPS” represents the encryption protocol that makes the website secure. Widely recognized protocols like “Secure Sockets Layer” (SSL) or “Transport Layer Security” (TLS) ensure data integrity and confidentiality during transmission, maintaining the security of sensitive information.
2. Messaging and Email Services:
Many messaging and email platforms offer end-to-end encryption, allowing only authorized parties to access messages. This protects confidential information and prevents unauthorized interception, benefiting professionals who handle sensitive data.
3. Online Transactions
Encryption plays a crucial role in securing online banking and e-commerce transactions. It safeguards financial information, such as credit card details, protecting against interception and ensuring customer trust.
4. Government and Military Communications
Encryption is vital for secure communication within government and military agencies. By encrypting sensitive information, it preserves national security, prevents data breaches, and defends against cyber threats.
These real-world applications demonstrate how encryption strengthens data security, ensuring the protection of information during communication, online transactions, and sensitive operations. Implementing encryption measures helps organizations and individuals safeguard their data from unauthorized access, maintaining privacy and integrity in their communications.
Key Benefits of Using Encryption for Data Security
Now that we’ve explored why data security is so important, let’s focus on the key benefits of using encryption to ensure data security. The following are the “benefits of encryption”:
Only authorized parties or the intended recipient will have access to the message since the correct decryption key is required. This is the most basic and common benefit of encryption.
2. Database Security
The purpose of a database is to keep files safe. It serves to protect both data at rest and frequently accessed pieces of information. However, databases also have disadvantages, including the risk of data breaches, unauthorized access, or stolen hardware. When a data breach occurs, the encryption secures the affected files, making them inaccessible and unreadable to any malicious actors. You can apply this level of security to all types of data. It works for data that stores on local hard drives and also for information kept in cloud storage.
3. Data Integrity
Cryptography is the process of encrypting and decrypting information. Furthermore, there is a string of texts known as “hash value generated through hash functions. This encryption process can be used to confirm the integrity of data in case any modification is made while in transit. This data verification mechanism is distinct since even a minor alteration, such as a single letter or number, in the original data will result in a completely different hash value.
4. Authentication and Nonrepudiation
Encryption can not only provide data integrity but also verify the identity of the sender and receiver. It offers undeniable evidence of the file’s origin and confirms whether the receiver has successfully obtained it This is done through digital signature and other advanced encryption mechanisms, which we discuss in some of our articles (verifiable credentials article, application of cryptography, and hashing). Check them out for a robust understanding of how encryption helps with authentication.
5. Secure Communication
Encryption provides end-to-end privacy and security in messaging applications, emails, and websites generally. Encryption establishes a secure connection between the user’s device and the server. This ensures all requests and data shared remain private.
6. Regulation Compliance
Encryption helps with compliance for organizations and industries dealing with sensitive data.
Standard encryption technology must be built into the data security architecture to comply with certain data regulations. This is to maintain users’ privacy and to avoid data breaches, unauthorized access, and data theft.
Encryption as a tool can be basic or advanced as the military-grade types. Their application cuts across messaging apps, credit card payments, dataset protection, and even the blockchain industry. Encryption has become the cornerstone of online security, ensuring the confidentiality and integrity of data. When combined with other security-focused technologies, organizations can defend themselves against online attacks and data breaches. Additionally, encryption safeguards sensitive data from physical unauthorized access, providing comprehensive protection. This applies not only to organizations but also to individual users using personal computers, mobile phones, and other devices.
As a blockchain company operating in the internet era, we value security, privacy, and data protection. As a company working on identity solutions, we base all our developments on these crucial subjects. Although our primary ecosystem is the blockchain industry, our solutions aren’t limited to it. Identity.com is also a member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards body for the World Wide Web.
Identity.com, as a future-oriented company, is an open-source ecosystem providing access to on-chain and secure identity verification for businesses, giving their customers a hassle-free experience. Our solutions improve the user experience and reduce onboarding friction through reusable and interoperable Gateway Passes. For more information on how we can help you with identity verification and general KYC processes, please refer to our docs.