Encryption is a word that’s often bandied about when people talk about modern technology. But why exactly is data encryption so important, and what does it mean?
Encryption refers to the cryptographic process of encoding information, altering it so that it cannot be read and, ultimately, deciphered. Encryption through symbol replacement dates back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, and Romans. One common form of encryption — which continues to form the basis for modern encryption techniques — involves substituting symbols and then providing (or, for those not intended to understand messages, not providing) a key or cipher that they could use to understand particular messages. Encryption was frequently utilized for military purposes in order that intercepted messages could not be read by enemy forces.
The codes used for encryption have, of course, changed in the centuries since then. However, the core concept of encryption keys remains the same in many cases: namely that multiple parties have access to a decryption key which they can use to turn plain text into ciphertext (encoded text), as well as vice versa.
Approaches to encryption
But within this broad description of encryption, there are multiple approaches, all with the goal of stopping others snooping on encrypted messages or other data. In symmetric encryption, both the encoder and recipient of a message have access to the same single private key. This is then shared so that an encrypted message can be turned back into plain text in order that it can be read.
Others take a different route, trying to find ways to get around the problem that a symmetric encryption private key is only secure if it is not intercepted by a bad actor. Asymmetric encryption involves a pair of mathematically linked keys in the form of a public and private key. The public key is designed for encryption, while the private key is for decryption. The key pair is generated using a cryptographic algorithm. The public key is able to be shared only with those who have the right private key. This, like two-factor authentication (2FA) password systems, adds an extra layer of security to make things tough for hackers.
In addition to these broad differences in approach to encryption, there are also different encryption types, including Data Encryption Standard (DES), Advanced Encryption Standard. (AES), and Rivest Shamir Adleman (RSA). Of these, AES is currently the world’s most widely used software for file encryption of electronic data. It offers unparalleled security, including key sizes of either 128, 192, or 256-bits.
Data is the new oil
Encryption is important to all aspects of our lives. It’s essential in users’ personal lives, wrapped up in the notion of privacy and personal liberty. But it’s also crucial for businesses, since it can safeguard organizational data and protect from malicious hacking attacks as well as accidental data breaches. Encryption means that, even if data is exposed to the outside world, it can’t be read by those without the proper authorizations.
This is especially valuable as data exfiltration by hackers has become big business, as evidenced by ransomware attacks that steal data and then extort its rightful owners by threatening to share the information with other parties. Another recent trend that stresses the importance of encryption is the shift toward remote working, speeded up by the COVID-19 pandemic. Data is particularly vulnerable when being transferred across networks, while taking data out of physical offices also increases the chances of laptops or other devices that might contain sensitive information falling into the wrong hands.
Furthermore, regulators are increasingly cracking down on companies that fail to properly safeguard user data privacy — as seen by sweeping initiatives such as the European Union’s GDPR guidelines.
Protect data at all costs
Strong encryption should be a part of every organization’s business strategy today, as a means of defending against attacks and reassuring users that their data is safe in the hands of the companies in question. In addition to strong encryption, companies should also consider other layers of data protection — including the likes of database firewalls, user rights management tools, data loss prevention (DLP) systems, database activity monitoring, and more. These will not only protect data as default, but also ensure that there are no attempts to access it by those without the proper authorization.
Data, as the world is frequently told, is the new oil — meaning that it carries a premium in terms of its value. It continues to be a major target for hackers, who can use it for a variety of nefarious purposes. Being entrusted with a users’ data, or simply wanting to protect your organization’s classified information, is a big responsibility. Make sure that you avail yourself of the right tools to do so. It will make both your, and your users’, lives far easier as a result.