While the tremendous growth of the internet in recent years has transformed our lives positively in many ways, this freedom also comes with various security threats. These threats have cost businesses worldwide millions of dollars, and have made individuals lose not just their money but also their identity.
Among many methods tested and recommended by experts for cybersecurity, i.e. protecting data transfer and communication, data encryption happens to be the simplest and most widely used technique.
What is encryption?
Encryption is a technique wherein the data to be transferred is scrambled or translated into a different format that only the receiver of the data who has the decryption key, or secret key, can access it.
Before data is encrypted, it’s referred to as plaintext, and after encryption it’s called ciphertext. The technique is majorly used to securely transfer data from one computer to another, and there are two basic categories of encryption – symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption.
As the name indicates, in symmetric encryption a single key is shared by both the sender and receiver of a message or data to encrypt and decrypt it. This process is pretty straightforward, and the key used remains secret or confidential, which means the person on the receiving end won’t be able to access the data until the sender shares the key with them. While this method is simpler and faster than asymmetric encryption, it may not be suitable for organizations constantly transferring huge amounts of data, as they’ll have to manage and keep the same number of keys.
Also referred to as public-key encryption, asymmetric encryption is a technique where two keys are used for the encryption process, wherein one key will be used for encrypting the data to be transferred and the other for decrypting it at the receiver’s end. This is a slower encryption technique as it uses longer keys to provide better security. However, it’s considered to be the best way there is to share data or information between two individuals. Here’s how it works:
The sender will encrypt the data to be transferred using the public key of the intended recipient
The receiver will use their private key (one that’s associated with the public key used to encrypt the data) to decrypt the data
Best encryption algorithms
There are numerous encryption algorithms out there, each with a purpose of its own; each algorithm is developed at different times and for different environments, many are evolution of the previous versions that failed to provide enhanced security. Some of the most commonly used encryption algorithms are:
1. Data Encryption Standard (DES)
DES, as it’s widely known, belongs to the symmetric encryption category and is one of the oldest encryption techniques. It was originally developed to be used by federal agencies to protect sensitive government data. Since this is a symmetric encryption algorithm, the same key will be used for both encryption and decryption of data, which means both the sender and receiver, should know the secret key. The DES encryption algorithm isn’t common as it’s already been cracked several times, mainly by brute-force attack, due to its low encryption key length.
2. Triple Data Encryption Standard (TDES)
Also known as 3DES, the triple data encryption standard algorithm is an update of the DES algorithm, developed specifically to address the issues with the latter. As the name suggests, the TDES algorithm processes the DES algorithm three times to each set of data being sent, which makes attacks to the algorithm or cracking it three times as hard. Though this algorithm was widely used in the finance industry for their encryption needs, the security holes in the TDES were eventually discovered by researchers. As a result, the algorithm was deprecated in 2019 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), disallowing its use in all new applications after 2023.
3. Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) algorithm
Named after its developers, the RSA encryption algorithm is part of the public-key or asymmetric algorithm category, which means it has two keys involved for encryption and decryption, the private and public keys. In this method, two huge prime numbers are chosen randomly, which are then multiplied to arrive at an incredibly enormous prime number. The challenge here is to find the original two giant prime numbers hidden in the result, which makes it very difficult.
The RSA encryption algorithm can be implemented in different key lengths, such as 768-bit, 1024-bit, 2048-bit, etc., which makes it a highly expansible encryption technique. The benefit of this is that it gets harder to break the algorithm as the key length increases.
4. Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
The advanced encryption standard algorithm, or AES, was originally developed as an efficient alternative to the DES encryption algorithm, and it’s one of the most extensively used types as well. This one also belongs to the symmetric algorithm category, and since it uses more complex and longer keys, it happens to be a lot more effective than many of its predecessors. Widely used by government organizations, the AES encryption algorithm is gaining ground in the private sector as well, as more and more people are learning that this is one of the safest and most flexible algorithms there is. Some of the applications where this algorithm is being used are VPN, Wi-Fi security, website security and mobile app encryption.
Developed as yet another alternative to the DES algorithm, the Blowfish encryption algorithm is known for its significantly high speed and better security compared to the former. The key lengths in this algorithm can be anywhere between 32 and 448 bits, and the facts that it’s readily available in the public domain for anyone to use and that it hasn’t been cracked so far make this a go-to encryption method for industries and businesses.
You don’t necessarily have to own a million-dollar business or an ecommerce store to think and learn about cybersecurity or encryption. It could be your personal information, financial information, email communications and/or valuable documents or messages, using an encryption algorithm will protect you against a lot of headaches you could otherwise experience. Even if it’s a basic algorithm that you use to begin with, it can make a huge difference to your cybersecurity.