Data encryption is a common and effective security method—a sound choice for protecting an organization’s information. However, there are a handful of different encryption methods available, so how do you choose?
In a world where cybercrimes are on the rise, it’s comforting to know that there are as many methods available to protect network security as there are ways of trying to penetrate it. The real challenge is deciding which techniques an internet security expert should employ that best suits their organization’s specific situation.
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What is Data Encryption in Network Security?
Data encryption is the process of converting data from a readable format to a scrambled piece of information. This is done to prevent prying eyes from reading confidential data in transit. Encryption can be applied to documents, files, messages, or any other form of communication over a network.
In order to preserve the integrity of our data, encryption is a vital tool whose value cannot be overstated. Almost everything we see on the internet has passed through some layer of encryption, be it websites or applications.
Noted antivirus and endpoint security experts at Kaspersky define encryption as “… the conversion of data from a readable format into an encoded format that can only be read or processed after it's been decrypted.”
They go on to say that encryption is considered the basic building block of data security, widely used by large organizations, small businesses, and individual consumers. It’s the most straightforward and crucial means of protecting information that passes from endpoints to servers.
Considering the elevated risk of cybercrime today, every person and group that uses the internet should be familiar with and incorporate basic encryption techniques, at the very least.
How Does Data Encryption Work?
The data that needs to be encrypted is termed plaintext or cleartext. The plaintext needs to be passed via some encryption algorithms, which are basically mathematical calculations to be done on raw information. There are multiple encryption algorithms, each of which differs by application and security index.
Apart from the algorithms, one also needs an encryption key. Using said key and a suitable encryption algorithm, the plaintext is converted into the encrypted piece of data, also known as ciphertext. Instead of sending the plaintext to the receiver, the ciphertext is sent through insecure channels of communication.
Once the ciphertext reaches the intended receiver, he/she can use a decryption key to convert the ciphertext back to its original readable format i.e. plaintext. This decryption key must be kept secret at all times, and may or not be similar to the key used for encrypting the message. Let’s understand the same with an example.
Let us understand the work process with the help of an example.
A woman wants to send her boyfriend a personal text, so she encrypts it using specialized software that scrambles the data into what appears to be unreadable gibberish. She then sends the message out, and her boyfriend, in turn, uses the correct decryption to translate it.
Thus, what starts out looking like this:
Fortunately, the keys do all the actual encryption/decryption work, leaving both people more time to contemplate the smoldering ruins of their relationship in total privacy.
Next, in our learning about effective encryption methods, let us find out why we need encryption.
Why Do We Need Data Encryption?
If anyone wonders why organizations need to practice encryption, keep these four reasons in mind:
- Authentication: Public key encryption proves that a website's origin server owns the private key and thus was legitimately assigned an SSL certificate. In a world where so many fraudulent websites exist, this is an important feature.
- Privacy: Encryption guarantees that no one can read messages or access data except the legitimate recipient or data owner. This measure prevents cybercriminals, hackers, internet service providers, spammers, and even government institutions from accessing and reading personal data.
- Regulatory Compliance: Many industries and government departments have rules in place that require organizations that work with users’ personal information to keep that data encrypted. A sampling of regulatory and compliance standards that enforce encryption include HIPAA, PCI-DSS, and the GDPR.
- Security: Encryption helps protect information from data breaches, whether the data is at rest or in transit. For example, even if a corporate-owned device is misplaced or stolen, the data stored on it will most likely be secure if the hard drive is properly encrypted. Encryption also helps protect data against malicious activities like man-in-the-middle attacks, and lets parties communicate without the fear of data leaks.
Let us now find out the important types of data encryption methods.
What are the 2 Types of Data Encryption Techniques?
There are several data encryption approaches available to choose from. Most internet security (IS) professionals break down encryption into three distinct methods: symmetric, asymmetric, and hashing. These, in turn, are broken down into different types. We’ll explore each one separately.
What is the Symmetric Encryption Method?
Also called private-key cryptography or a secret key algorithm, this method requires the sender and the receiver to have access to the same key. So, the recipient needs to have the key before the message is decrypted. This method works best for closed systems, which have less risk of a third-party intrusion.
On the positive side, symmetric encryption is faster than asymmetric encryption. However, on the negative side, both parties need to make sure the key is stored securely and available only to the software that needs to use it.
What is the Asymmetric Encryption Method?
Also called public-key cryptography, this method uses two keys for the encryption process, a public and a private key, which are mathematically linked. The user employs one key for encryption and the other for decryption, though it doesn’t matter which you choose first.
As the name implies, the public key is freely available to anyone, whereas the private key remains with the intended recipients only, who need it to decipher the messages. Both keys are simply large numbers that aren’t identical but are paired with each other, which is where the “asymmetric” part comes in.
What is Hashing?
Hashing generates a unique signature of fixed length for a data set or message. Each specific message has its unique hash, making minor changes to the information easily trackable. Data encrypted with hashing cannot be deciphered or reversed back into its original form. That’s why hashing is used only as a method of verifying data.
Many internet security experts don’t even consider hashing an actual encryption method, but the line is blurry enough to let the classification stand. The bottom line, it’s an effective way of showing that no one has tampered with the information.
Now that we have gone through the types of data encryption techniques, let us next learn the specific encryption algorithms.
Best Encryption Algorithms
There’s a host of different encryption algorithms available today. Here are five of the more common ones.
- AES. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is the trusted standard algorithm used by the United States government, as well as other organizations. Although extremely efficient in the 128-bit form, AES also uses 192- and 256-bit keys for very demanding encryption purposes. AES is widely considered invulnerable to all attacks except for brute force. Regardless, many internet security experts believe AES will eventually be regarded as the go-to standard for encrypting data in the private sector.
- Triple DES. Triple DES is the successor to the original Data Encryption Standard (DES) algorithm, created in response to hackers who figured out how to breach DES. It’s symmetric encryption that was once the most widely used symmetric algorithm in the industry, though it’s being gradually phased out. TripleDES applies the DES algorithm three times to every data block and is commonly used to encrypt UNIX passwords and ATM PINs.
- RSA. RSA is a public-key encryption asymmetric algorithm and the standard for encrypting information transmitted via the internet. RSA encryption is robust and reliable because it creates a massive bunch of gibberish that frustrates would-be hackers, causing them to expend a lot of time and energy to crack into systems.
- Blowfish. Blowfish is another algorithm that was designed to replace DES. This symmetric tool breaks messages into 64-bit blocks and encrypts them individually. Blowfish has established a reputation for speed, flexibility, and is unbreakable. It’s in the public domain, so that makes it free, adding even more to its appeal. Blowfish is commonly found on e-commerce platforms, securing payments, and in password management tools.
- Twofish. Twofish is Blowfish’s successor. It’s license-free, symmetric encryption that deciphers 128-bit data blocks. Additionally, Twofish always encrypts data in 16 rounds, no matter what the key size. Twofish is perfect for both software and hardware environments and is considered one of the fastest of its type. Many of today’s file and folder encryption software solutions use this method.
- Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA). Rivest-Shamir-Adleman is an asymmetric encryption algorithm that works off the factorization of the product of two large prime numbers. Only a user with knowledge of these two numbers can decode the message successfully. Digital signatures commonly use RSA, but the algorithm slows down when it encrypts large volumes of data.
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