Encryption: A Brief Overview

Encryption is simply a way of disguising a message. It takes a bit of data, like a letter in a word, and changes it to a different bit of data according to a set formula. Then, when your recipient gets the message, they work backwards to decode the message. You might have done this in grade school passing notes. Maybe you do this every Saturday morning in the newspaper’s “Celebrity Ciphers”

How Computers Do It

Instead of a one-to-one letter exchange like your newspaper cipher, computers use much more complex formula’s to encode your data. (If Grandpa Jo can sit down with a pencil and figure it out, a computer program would crack it in milliseconds). Instead, computers take blocks of data, pass it through a formula built on very large prime numbers, and spit out new blocks of “jumbled up” data. Only if you have the key, which is a long string of numbers, can you decode the data. Because factoring very large numbers into their very large prime factors is not an easy task for computers, modern encryption formulas such as AES are considered “unbreakable”. Theoretically, given enough processing power and time you could crack them. But even if you used every GPU in existence it would take you longer than the age of the universe. That’s pretty cool. 

“Modern encryption is unbreakable. If you tried to decrypt a file by guessing the key, it would take longer than the age of the universe to try all the possibilities, even if you somehow used every atom of silicon in the universe to make a giant super computer. “

Beyond the Basics

So, encryption keys are very important. Most encryption keys are linked to a password which is much easier to break, especially because most people don’t pick very good passwords. Check out our article on good passwords here.

But what if you don’t want to share your encryption key even with the person to whom you are sending the message? There is a solution for that too! It is called public key encryption. The key that codes the message, is not the same on that de-codes the message. There is a public key and a private key. The public key encrypts the message, and the private key decrypts it. You keep your key private, but tell anyone who wants to send you a secret message to use a public key. That way, anyone can encrypt, but only you can decrypt. Of course, to go in the other direction, you would need a different pair of keys. You would need to use your friend’s public key to encrypt messages for her to decrypt with her private key. 

Why it matters

The internet is a public place. Without encryption, anyone can see what you are sending to everyone else. That means bank account information, proprietary business information, and physical security details. Encryption can even be used on data that isn’t sent across the internet, but stays on a phone or a desktop. For example, according to HIPAA, the United State’s health information security law, all patient information must be encrypted in all possible situations. (For help with HIPAA compliance, check here.)

So are you protected? Talk to one of our security specialists today. 

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