In recent years, encryption has become something of a hot topic. Mentions of the word have increased dramatically in light of Edward Snowden’s government surveillance leaks. Security revelations have led to a number of disagreements between governments and businesses over the use of encryption and the public’s access to encryption technologies. So you might be wondering: what exactly is encryption, and why does it deserve so much attention? Let’s take a look…
Why encrypt data?
Encryption is a method by which messages or data can be converted into a format that makes it difficult to extract the original information without the use of the correct key to decrypt it. In general, it is practically impossible to break a good encryption algorithm without a large amount of computational power. This means that encryption is a great way of keeping information or data secure when there’s any possibility that it may fall into the wrong hands. Even if they get hold of the encrypted data, they will be unable to obtain the original data from it.
The history of encryption
For centuries, governments and the military have used encryption to protect communications from their enemies. A lot of time and effort has been put into ensuring that each has better encryption than the other, as well as into hunting out flaws and breaking the other’s encryption. The resources required to decrypt data kept encryption technology away from the public until the advent of the personal computer, which allowed encryption software to be utilized.
In 1991, Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) was released as a free and open-source encrypting tool that anyone could use to protect messages they were sending on the internet via email, bulletin boards, or Usenet. It can also be used to encrypt files, directories or even whole disks if required. For the first time, the general public had access to the tools and equipment they needed to protect their data with encryption.
As the internet expanded, it became clear that the old-fashioned method of transmitting all data in plain text – which can be intercepted and read by any party with the appropriate capabilities – needed to change. Encryption is now used in a number of different ways to help protect data transmitted across the internet. One of the most commonly encountered encryption systems now is the Transport Layer Security (TLS) system, used when browsing the internet to websites using HTTPS (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure). TLS system uses a two-stage method of protection, which consists of a cryptographically signed certificate that verifies the identity of the server, and also encrypts all data sent between the server and the web browser to protect your data in transit over the internet.
From luxury security to necessary tool
Modern-day internet usage has led to encryption becoming a must-have marketing tool. WhatsApp proudly proclaimed that they were going to provide end-to-end encryption in their chat client so that it became impossible for them to know what messages were being sent, as they were only visible to the parties taking part in the chat. Google, Mozilla and others have been pushing to make HTTPS the default way of communicating with websites, slowly attempting to remove plain text transfer of data from the internet. In addition, Virtual Private Network (VPN) providers have also become popular as a way of encrypting network traffic from devices to a specific point, at which the traffic is then mixed with many other users, making it possible to mask that internet usage from anyone who may be monitoring those communications.
Businesses are also heavy users of encryption, with the effort being put into ensuring that they keep their data secure by making use of multiple encryption mechanisms. These range from file encryption to full disk encryption on their computer systems and encrypting communications internally to the company. These days, encryption is all around us. Chances are that you are using it without even realizing it’s there.
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