It may seem like encryption has only recently been discovered and now it is constantly in the headlines for good reasons and bad. The technology has actually been around for thousands of years and has protected people and information since the Ancient Greeks and throughout the ages. So what is encryption and how can it protect you?
What is encryption?
Encryption is a method of scrambling information in such a way that only the sender and the intended recipient can make sense of it. It means that even if the data is captured or intercepted, it remains secure unless it can be decrypted.
Encryption uses a cipher and a key to work. The cipher is usually some incredibly complicated math that turns data into gibberish but in an organized way. As the cipher is organized, a specific key, or keys, can be used to decipher the encrypted data. This turns it back into plain text data.
There are two main types of encryption, symmetric and asymmetric. Symmetric encryption uses the same key for encryption and decryption which needs to be shared with all parties accessing the data. Asymmetric encryption uses different keys, a public and a private one. This is also referred to as public-key cryptography and is the one most often in the news.
You will likely have heard about how governments are afraid of encryption because they think terrorists will use it. They want to ban it and in the high profile Apple v. FBI case of 2016, wanted the encryption in an iPhone cracked to access the data inside it. They also wanted technology companies to engineer back doors into encryption programs so the government could get in if they wanted to. All the companies refused as it would make encryption vulnerable, defeating the object.
It is important to know that encryption is a power for good and not for evil. It is a technology designed to protect information and the people to whom that information relates to. It is only the users of that information that are either good or evil.
How can it protect you?
Encryption is an important security measure that can protect data at rest and data in transit. Data at rest is when it is stored on hard drives or SSD. Data in transit is when it is being transmitted over a network, secure or otherwise.
You could have the most secure computer in the world but as soon as you try to email or FTP data to someone, it goes out onto a public network and anyone can sniff it and look at what you’re sending. That kind of defeats the object.
If you encrypt your data before sending it, even if someone could capture that data when on the public network, without the key they wouldn’t be able to read it.
Another example is the rise of SSL encryption for websites. You may have noticed an increase in ‘http’ websites being replaced with ‘https’ and little green boxes in your browser’s URL bar. This is to show you that any data shared between you and the website is encrypted. This protects any data such as credit card or payment details you may enter into a website while in transit between your computer and the website.
How can you use encryption at home?
You have two main encryption technologies available to you at home. One is data encryption that protects data at rest and the other is to protect data in transit. A combination of the two offers maximum security.
There are a number of disk encryption products on the market right now. BitLocker is included with Windows 10 Pro and Enterprise and protects data at rest. It encrypts the entire hard drive so if you lose your computer, the data can be protected. Apple does the same thing with FileVault.
To protect data in transit you can use an email program that encrypts all mails and a VPN which creates a secure tunnel between two computers. VPNs are most often used to circumvent geoblocking but can connect two computers together. They can also create secure connections between your computer and a website or other network entity.
You can encrypt your cell phone to protect your data, images, videos and whatever else you may have stored on it too. iMessage and WhatsApp encrypts messages you send and receive by default. If security is important to you, it is wise to use services that protect your data in this way.
Encryption is not evil and does not hurt law enforcement. It is a power for good and is simply designed to protect data. Encryption does not concern itself with what that data is or how it is used. That is down to us. With privacy becoming an endangered species, I firmly believe everyone should use some form of encryption to protect what is theirs.