What is Encryption and How Does it Work?

03/02/2021

Thanks to the rise of the internet and digital platforms, we are now more connected than ever before. But our digital world has created its own set of challenges for users and companies worldwide, including the issue of protecting communications. 

It can seem like there are new threats to our privacy and security emerging virtually every day in our digital era. But encryption is a time-tested and centuries-old solution for ensuring the security of your correspondence. Here's what you should know about modern encryption -- including how it works and why you should use it.

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What is Encryption?

In a nutshell, encryption is a way to make information and data unreadable to parties other than the intended recipient. Although encryption is an ancient art, it is increasingly relevant in today's interconnected and digital world.

A bit more specific to the modern era, encrypting a piece of information is essentially scrambling it so that unwanted eyes can't read it without the proper key. Only with the proper key can the recipient of a message can unscramble, or decrypt, it.

The mechanism that scrambles and encrypts your data is known as an encryption algorithm. As far as other important terms in cryptography, readable information is called "plaintext," while encrypted data is called "ciphertext."

Today's modern encryption-leveraging software and tools largely take care of this for the user and operate in the background. That's quite unlike the manual encryption of the early days of cryptography, and much easier on users.

Of course, not all encryption is created equally. For experienced attackers, a weak cryptographic standard isn’t much of a deterrent. That's why it's important to use software and tools that leverage time-tested and strong encryption standards.

Even then, there are ways to break through encryption. An attacker could, for example, steal your encryption key -- rendering your "ciphertext" readable. In some cases, skilled hackers can use hashing or brute force attacks to break encryption.

With all of that in mind, encryption is still highly recommended for anyone who uses the internet. And for certain groups of people — like those who deal with sensitive communications — it is absolutely vital.

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Types of Encryption Methods

Generally, in terms of modern cryptography, there are two major types of encryption used: symmetric key encryption and asymmetric key encryption.

Symmetric key encryption is arguably the more traditional method, though not as widely used in modern digital cryptography. In symmetric key encryption, messages are encoded using a single key that both the sender and receiver of a message can access.

Think of it like sending a locked box, with sensitive data inside, to another person through the mail. As long as you and your intended recipient have access to the same key or identical copies of the key, you'll both be able to correspond securely by “unlocking” the contents.

Asymmetric key encryption, commonly known as public-key cryptography, is a bit different. Each user of this type of encryption has their own keys that either encrypt or decrypt a message. More than that, users have both public and private encryption keys.

In this type of encryption, senders scramble messages using a recipient's public key. From there, only the recipient of the message can decrypt it with their own private key. A sender can also opt to encrypt a message using their own private key. In that case, only their public key can decrypt it.

This type of encryption is generally more secure than symmetric key encryption. That's because a user's private key is generally never shared. And if it does happen to become compromised, it doesn't threaten anyone else's private keys.

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In modern cryptography, there's also end-to-end encryption (E2EE) — a type of asymmetric encryption. E2EE encrypts a message so that only the sender and intended recipient can read it. Even if you use a third-party messaging platform to send E2EE messages, the owners of that platform (along with hackers or governments) won't be able to decrypt your communications.

Why You Should Encrypt Your Communications

Every single day on the internet, you deal with transactions of highly confidential and sensitive information — including social security numbers, credit card information, and home addresses. It's only through modern encryption methods that this data is actually protected from prying eyes.

Besides those sensitive bits of data, there are numerous reasons why you'd want to protect other data. For example, according to The Wall Street Journal, Google scans the inboxes of Gmail users for various reasons. If your emails are encrypted, then this inbox scanning won't amount to any privacy or security risks.

Luckily, modern computer users don't necessarily need to know the intricacies of encryption algorithms, nor do they need to manually store or memorize an encryption key. Generally, the software takes care of this on their end, though there are exceptions.

Some of those programmed software options include Apple's iMessage, which automatically uses E2EE when you're texting another iPhone user. As long as your texting bubbles are blue, your messages are end-to-end encrypted. The same goes for FaceTime audio and video chats.

For more versatility or support on Android, WhatsApp and Signal are two excellent options. The first is widely used by even non-security conscious users, while the other is highly secure, private, and trusted by journalists and security experts worldwide.

Encrypting your emails takes a bit more digging than firing up an app, but it's still easy enough for the average user. Swiss-based ProtonMail, as an example, will automatically end-to-end encrypt your messages when corresponding with other ProtonMail users.

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You can encrypt your existing Gmail or Yahoo messages, too. You'll just need to use open-source software tools like the Thunderbird mail client and an encryption plugin called Enigmail. Digital rights group The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an excellent resource for getting this system, based on PGP encryption, set up.

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