What is Encryption and Why is it Important?

What is Encryption

Every aspect of life as we know it these days has been transformed by the Internet revolution, from the way we learn things, to the way we shop. We now use the Internet to carry out a whole range of activities, like playing games, reading the news, communicating with others, applying for jobs, as well as a number of other things. Just about everything is online now. When we are on the Internet, we may think we are only receiving information, but this is not in fact true: while we are engaged in browsing the Net, we are unconsciously sending out information about ourselves, such as our location and identity. So we are generally not as safe online as we may like to think we are.

For instance, when we are shopping online, we have to transmit our name, address and bank card details over the Web to the vendor. With such sensitive information being sent, it is imperative that certain measures are taken to ensure the confidentiality and privacy of the data. The latest statistics show that worryingly the incidences of cybercrime are on the rise.

This is where encryption is our most essential defensive strategy. Encryption used to be synonymous with the science of cryptography, before the modern age and the advent of the computer, i.e. as a means of encoding information so that it can only be read by authorised persons. Stated in simple terms, modern-day encryption is where the data to be transmitted over the Internet is scrambled in such a way that it can only be unscrambled (decrypted) by someone possessing the encryption key. There are two types.

Public Key Encryption and Symmetric Key Encryption

Public Key Encryption

This type of encryption (also known as public-key cryptography) uses two different types of keys, a public and a private one. For example, if a user needs to send sensitive data over the Internet and make it safe, the public key is used to encrypt the data in question; but the data can only be encrypted by the recipient using their own private key.

This technique can be used to send emails securely and to digitally sign documents. Examples of public key encryption systems are Secure Socket Layer (SSL), and the newer method, Transport Layer Security (TLS).

Symmetric Key Encryption

With this encryption method, both the sender and the receiver use the same key, which simplifies and speeds up the process. However, the key and the data can still be compromised whilst in transit over the Internet. Data Encryption Standard (DES) is a type of symmetric key encryption which has now been superseded by the more modern Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), a system first adopted by the US government and now used throughout the world.

The Benefits of Encryption

The advantages of encryption are not only restricted to the Internet: you can also encrypt data on your computer, hard drives, USB and other storage devices, mobile devices and many others, which will prevent misuse of the data if the device is hacked, lost or stolen.

The Importance of Encryption

As stated above, IT and technology statistics show that the incidences of cyber crime are rising dramatically, which means that the need for encryption to keep data safe from hackers is becoming ever more imperative. Governments and large corporations naturally require very high levels of encryption to protect sensitive information, such as their business secrets and confidential data. Encryption also gives us all peace of mind that our private data is not ending up in the wrong hands.

Picture courtesy of www.wired.co.uk

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