Encryption: What is it, and why is it important?

 In advice, technical
Since its inception, the Internet has dramatically altered the way we handle information.  From the methods we use to gain knowledge to how we purchase good and services, our way of life has been completely transformed. While browsing the web, reading the news, and shopping – it seems as if we are only receiving information.  However, the gathering of information via the Internet is only part of the equation. Even during these fairly mundane online activities, we send a lot more information about ourselves than we may realize.

When it comes to signing up for an online account, or making a purchase online, we give out a lot of sensitive information that may include anything, from our home address and email account to our credit card information. Given the high profile cases of surveillance and data breaches in the news, may of us have major security concerns about our own personal data .  Even with the great advancements in security over the last several years, many users are still nervous at the thought of sharing their personal information online. When used properly, encryption can play a very important role in computer security.  In layman’s terms, encryption scrambles the data that is to be sent over the Internet and can only be read by someone who possesses the encryption key. Encryption is based on the science of cryptography. Most computer encryption is commonly one of two types:

  • Public key encryption
  • Symmetric key encryption

Public Key Encryption

This type of encryption system uses two keys: a public key and a private key. Suppose you want to send encrypted data to another person. You would use that person’s public key to encrypt the data.  However, the concerned person will only be able to decrypt it using their personal private key. This method is often utilized to send secure emails across the Internet. The same encryption method is also used for digitally signing documents.  A digital signature vouches for the origin of the document. Secure Socket Layer (SSL), the precursor of the more modern Transport Layer security (TLS), is a fine example of a public-key encryption system.  You probably use an SSL-encrypted site every day for purchasing goods online, or accessing online banking.

Symmetric Key Encryption

Symmetric key encryption requires the sender and the receiver to use the same key, unlike two keys for public encryption systems. The same key is used by both ends to encrypt and decrypt the data being sent, resulting in the overall system being much simpler and faster.  However, the key must be sent across the public Internet in some way, which may lead to a security compromise if somehow the key is intercepted while in transit. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) has replaced Data Encryption Standard (DES) – these algorithms are based on the symmetric key encryption.

Local Encryption

Encryption is not only limited to use on the Internet.  USB devices, laptop hard drives and other mobile devices can now have their data encrypted to prevent others from reading sensitive data if lost or stolen.

Why Encryption is Important

Cybercrimes and hacking campaigns have lead to an increase in important data being stolen over the Internet, and this has made encryption necessary not just for individual users, but corporations and governments as well. They may use advanced encryption techniques to protect their business trade secrets and classified information. Encryption allows individuals to protect their sensitive information from identity theft and browse the web with safety and peace of mind.

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