Data encryption is a security measure that encodes information, making it only accessible by a user with a decryption key. Encrypted data is illegible and reads like gibberish. We call encrypted data ciphertext, while unencrypted data is plaintext.
In our last post, we took a look into databases. But now, we're going to take a look into one of the ways we keep those databases secure.
We use data encryption every day to protect our data from outside threats. Even if someone steals your data, hijacked data is unusable by thieves.
We've all encountered some form of encryption at a basic level. If you've seen the classic film A Christmas Story, you may remember the main character, Ralphie. Ralphie used his decoder ring to decrypt a secret radio message. He was using a variation of a simple cipher disk. Today we use much more elaborate means of data encryption.
History of Data Cryptography
In the early 1970s, IBM submitted an algorithm to the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). After consultation with the National Security Agency (NSA) and some slight modifications, NBS published the Data Encryption Standard (DES).
Data Encryption Standard (DES)
DES is a basic encryption algorithm that served its purpose well for a few decades. But by 2000, computers were being produced that could try every possible DES key in only two days! So in 2001, the Federal Information Processing Standards Publications (FIPS PUBS) announced the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
AES keys are up to 256 bits in length. It would take nearly all modern computers trillions of years to try every key combination. AES uses far more complicated math equations that are almost impossible to crack. The types of encryption we are about reference utilize AES.
Types of Data Encryption
There are two types of encryption methods: Symmetric Encryption and Asymmetric Encryption (sometimes called public-key cryptography). Both of these types require a key to encrypt and decrypt a message. If you think back to Ralphie's decoder ring in A Christmas Story, the decoder was his key to decrypt the message.
Symmetric Data Encryption
Symmetric encryption uses the same key to encrypt and decrypt a message. So, a key used in this method needs to be kept private. Anyone who has access to a key has access to your data. Ralphie's decoder ring uses symmetric encryption since whoever wrote the message used the same decoder ring to encrypt the message.
Asymmetric Data Encryption
Asymmetric Encryption, also called public-key encryption, uses a public key to encrypt data. While anyone can access the public key, only the recipient with a private key can decrypt the data.
For example, imagine you send a box with an unlocked lock to your friend, but you keep the key. They can put anything in the box and lock it shut, and not worry about anyone opening it. Anyone can put things in the box and lock it. The box is an example of a public key. When your friend sends the box back, you have the private key to unlock the box.
You can use asymmetric data encryption as a gateway to using private-key encryption using simple steps. (1) You send a box with an open lock to your friend and keep the key. (2) They send the locked box back with a new lock and key inside (they keep an additional key for the new lock themself). (3) You now have a locked box, for which only the two of you have keys.
So, we know how our data is encrypted and decrypted, but how is it ACTUALLY encrypted? (If you would like to watch an easy-to-understand breakdown ofdata encryption, you can find that at the end of the article.) Essentially, the encryption key runs all of your data through an algorithm that scrambles and dismantles your data. Then, it reassembles it in a way that only the encryption key can understand. The encryption key interprets the data and rewrites it as plaintext.
As far as a deep dive into encryption algorithms, that's far beyond the scope of this article. But, I hope you could grasp how our data is kept safe on the web or stored locally.
While the two types of modern encryption are elaborate, now you know where to start your encryption research journey.
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