Today's world relies on the Internet for a significant amount of its communications, so security is a big concern. Grab a newspaper or click a news story link, and you'll inevitably read of yet another security breach or hacking attempt. Of course, online communication and data exchange comes with risks, but the technology's speed and convenience make it worthwhile.
Well, as it turns out, there is. As a result, organizations, businesses, and individuals alike turn to one of the many sorts of cryptography available to send secure data. For instance, there is the end-to-end encrypted data method designed to increase security and lower risk. So, today we will explore end-to-end encryption, including what it means, how it works, its advantages, and why data is more secure when it's encrypted end to end.
Let’s begin with a definition.
What Is End-To-End Encryption?
End-to-end encryption, or E2EE for short, is a secure communication method that encrypts data transferred from one end device or system to another while preventing third parties from accessing the data.
Other than the sender and the receiver, no one can access information in an end-to-end encryption system. Instead, data gets encrypted at the device level, meaning files and messages are encrypted before sending and get decrypted only after they arrive at their destination.
When parties use end-to-end encryption to send an email or data to someone, no one sees your message's content, including the government, hackers, or even the Internet Service Provider (ISP), or applications provider.
For example, several end-to-end data encryption methods exist, such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). You can read more in-depth information about PGP here.
To sum it up, end-to-end encryption is an encryption system that stands out from other encryption systems because only the sender and the receiver, otherwise known as the endpoints, can decrypt and read the information.
How Does End-To-End Encryption Work?
End-to-end encryption’s fundamental element is the creation of a public-private pair of keys. This method, also called asymmetric cryptography, uses separate cryptographic keys to secure and decrypt the data.
Public keys are widely distributed and used to encrypt or lock the message. Everyone in the network (e.g., a corporation's email system) can access the public key. Users encrypt their transmission using the public key and send it to the user who also has that public key. The information, however, can only get decrypted with the correct private key, also called the decryption key.
However, private keys are only known by the respective owner at each end (the senders and receivers) and are used to decrypt or unlock the information. Let's look at an example and how this all comes together.
Ron and Don have both created accounts on their corporation’s system. This end-to-end encrypted system gives each person a public-private key pair. The public keys are stored on the server, but each person’s private keys are stored on their devices.
Ron wants to send Don an encrypted message, so he uses Don’s public key to encrypt the message. Then, when Don gets the message, he uses his private key that’s already on his device to decrypt Ron’s message. Then, if Don wants to reply to Ron, he repeats the process, encrypting the message to Ron using Ron's public key.
Why End-To-End Encryption Is Important and What It Protects Against
End-to-end encryption is the virtual equivalent of locking your data in an impregnable safe and sending it to the only person who knows the combination. This level of security makes end-to-end encryption an extremely valuable and essential part of doing business in the 21st century.
End-to-end encryption is essential because it offers users and receivers the necessary security for their message and data from the moment the user sends the information until the instant the recipient gets it. In the process, it also guarantees that no unauthorized user can read the data.
For example, services like Gmail, Google, or Microsoft give providers copies of the decryption keys, allowing them access to users’ content on its servers, enabling the providers to read users’ email and files. In Google’s case, for example, this possession of decryption keys has allowed them in the past to target advertisements to the Google account holder. Have you ever wondered why you get ads online that seem to be a bit too on the nose? Accessing user files and emails accounts for some of that. But frankly, it’s a bit creepy.
However, this can’t happen on a well-constructed end-to-end encrypted system because the encryption system doesn’t allow providers access to the decryption keys. So, for people who value their privacy (and are sick of getting flooded with online ads!), end-to-end encryption is an absolute must!
But end-to-end encryption protects users against so much more than irritating advertisements. End-to-end encryption keeps prying eyes away from the message because only the ends (sender and receiver) have access to the decryption keys. So even if the message is visible to an intermediary server that relays the message, it cannot be understood.
End-to-end encryption also defends against fraud, specifically message tampering. Hackers and other cybercriminals often attempt to change information either out of pure malice or commit fraud. Since there is no way to predictably change an E2EE encrypted message, the tampering effort would stick out like a sore thumb, alerting users that the data is compromised.
What Are the Advantages of End-To-End Encryption?
Here’s a bulleted summary of the plusses of end-to-end encryption. Some of these points have already been covered.
- It protects administrators: Since administrators don’t possess decryption keys, attacks against them will fail.
- It protects user privacy: Providers can potentially read their customers’ data because the information is decrypted on the providers’ servers. Unfortunately, that makes the decrypted data vulnerable to unauthorized third parties and hackers. E2EE prevents these intrusions because no one can read the data. This encryption also prevents providers from targeting advertisements to their customers based on the content of their messages.
- It protects your information from hacking: Hackers have many different avenues of attack at their disposal. End-to-end encryption makes these efforts irrelevant because no matter how a hacker manages to access your encrypted information, they still can’t read it, so it’s useless to them.
- It helps democracy: Thanks to end-to-end encryption’s robust privacy safeguards, activists, journalists, and dissidents can keep their words secure and out of prying eyes, thereby protecting the notion of free speech.
What Can’t End-To-End Encryption Do?
End-to-end encryption is a fantastic tool, but it can’t do everything. Here’s a list of things E2EE can’t help with.
- It can’t protect metadata: Metadata includes details such as the message’s send date and time, who sent it, and who received it. So, although E2EE protects the content of the message, it doesn't help the information surrounding the message. Hackers could extrapolate certain information based on metadata.
- It can’t protect compromised endpoints: End-to-end encryption will protect your text, but it can’t do anything about someone getting a hold of your device or the device you sent the data to. You can do everything correctly, but if the message recipient decrypts the message, then walks away from their device for a while and leaves it unattended, there’s a risk of the information falling into the wrong hands. It’s even possible for hackers to use a compromised endpoint to steal encryption keys, paving the way for possible man-in-the-middle attacks and other types of cyber threats. A compromised encryption key can spell disaster on a wide scale since it would make everyone in the network vulnerable.
- It can’t do anything about vulnerable intermediaries: Some providers say they offer end-to-end encryption when in reality, they provide something closer to encryption in transit. Consequently, any of your data stored on an intermediary’s server can be potentially accessed.
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