Beginner’s guide to the basics of data encryption
To understand what data encryption means, we first need to know what data is. Data refers to any piece of information that has been translated into a binary digital format that makes it easy to be moved or processed.
The increase in smartphone usage and fast internet connectivity has led to a surge in the creation of digital data. Examples of data include text, video information, web and log activity records and audio.
The proliferation of data in governments, organizations and agencies has placed increased emphasis on data quality and integrity. As a result, individuals and organizations are now faced with the heavy task of ensuring data quality and guaranteeing that the records in use are the most accurate.
Data breaches have become rampant these days, which is why data integrity and quality are in question. According to Statista, the number of data breaches in the U.S. has grown from 157 in 2005 to over 1,000 each of the past five years.
Is there something that can be done to control the situation?
What is data encryption?
Data encryption is one solution to mitigating the menace of data breaches that are ravaging the internet streets. Data encryption refers to the procedure or process of scrambling plaintext data into a complex undecipherable format known as ciphertext. Data encryption renders data unreadable to unauthorized parties who do not have the decryption keys.
Robust data encryption tools, combined with competent key management, can go a long way toward safeguarding data from modification, data disclosures and theft. Data encryption is thus one of the most significant elements of a cybersecurity strategy.
How does data encryption work?
Data encryption algorithms in use today go beyond simply concealing data from unauthorized parties. Data encryption ensures that the data’s origin can be authenticated and maintains its integrity throughout its transmission stage.
Encryption works by scrambling data and information into a sequence of a random and unrecognizable characters. The scrambled information is then transmitted to the receiver, who holds the decryption key to turn the ciphertext into plain text. You can see the figure below to understand more about how encryption works.
For example, the phrase “Nice Meeting You” can be encrypted to a ciphertext that appears like 4596 9012 11884. For the receiver to get back the “Nice Meeting You” text, they need a decryption key.
Data encryption techniques
There are several data encryption techniques. However, three approaches appear to be more popular. These are symmetric encryption, asymmetric encryption and hashing. We will have a look at them to see how they work.
Symmetric encryption is the most straightforward data encryption that involves a single secret key for encryption and decryption of data. The private key could be in the form of a number, letter or a string of random numbers and letters.
The secret key combines with the data in plain text to transform the contents of the information in a particular manner. Both the sender and recipient of the information must know the secret key. One of the major drawbacks of symmetric encryption is that the parties must exchange the private keys before the data can be decrypted.
Asymmetric encryption (public key)
Popularly referred to as public-key cryptography, asymmetric encryption is a relatively novel technique compared to symmetric encryption. This data encryption method uses two keys (private key and public keys) to convert plain text data into ciphertext.
In public keys, two keys are used. The public key will encrypt data, while the private key will decrypt data. It is referred to as a public key because anyone can use the key to encrypt data. No hacker can read, interpret or decipher the original information once encrypted using a public key.
The private key will be used to decrypt the data. Usually, details about the private key will be shared between the party sending the information and the party receiving the information.
The last data encryption approach is hashing. Hashing is an encryption technique that generates a fixed-length unique signature for an information set. Data encrypted with hashing cannot be reversed back into plain text. As such, hashing is used primarily for data verification.
Many cybersecurity professionals still do not regard hashing as an encryption technique. However, the bottom line is that hashing is a perfect way of proving that the data was not tampered with in its transmission.
How to encrypt your data
Now that you know the benefits of data encryption and how data encryption works, you might be wondering what steps you should take to ensure that your data is encrypted. Data encryption comes at little or absolutely no cost. Most android phones run on full device encryption.
If you run a website, you must ensure that the website runs on the HTTPS protocol. HTTPS websites have a Secure Socket Layer. SSL certificates are one of the most crucial encryption tools that will protect your data from unauthorized access. To encrypt the in-transit data and communications between website servers and website visitors, all you need to do is purchase an SSL certificate. Usually, SSL certificates are acquired from trusted certificate providers like ClickSSL.
To encrypt a file on your computer, right-click on the file you wish to encrypt and select properties. You should then navigate to the advanced tab and select the check box designated Encrypt contents to secure data. Finally, click OK and then Apply.
The future of data encryption
Data encryption and the cybersecurity landscape are constantly transitioning to keep up with cybersecurity threats. Without data encryption, institutional data is susceptible to brute force attacks, data breaches and identity thefts.
To combat such cybersecurity threats, companies and organizations have now resolved to develop enterprise-wide encryption tactics. Over 50% of organizations have implemented at least one data encryption technique, according to the Entrust 2021 Global Encryption Trends Study.
One of the notable emerging trends in data encryption is the bring your own key (BYOK) data encryption model. The data owner is required to use their encryption key without necessarily acquiring it from a third-party key management vendor. In addition, homomorphic encryption and quantum crypto-agile solutions are also gaining pace. Soon, we will see increased dependence on these encryption solutions.
Data encryption has proved to be one of the essential elements of data security. It can be used to reduce the risk of threats such as data breaches, man-in-the-middle attacks and many others. Data encryption should be part and parcel of your organization’s cybersecurity mix. Sensitive data should remain encrypted at all times.