Data Encryption 101

As lost and stolen laptops, smartphones and USB drives continue to cause data breaches for businesses of all sizes, data encryption is a topic that should be near the forefront of conversations centered around cybersecurity best practices. Many businesses don’t realize how much sensitive information is on mobile devices. Sensitive information could be in emails, spreadsheets, documents, PDF files and scanned images. The best way to protect sensitive information is to use data encryption.

In this post, we’ll take a deeper dive into the basics of data encryption and answer common questions, such as:

  • What is data encryption?
  • Why should data be encrypted?
  • What types of devices should be encrypted?
  • How is data encrypted?
  • Who should use data encryption?
  • Is data encryption 100% reliable?
  • How can I protect my data?

What is data encryption?

Data is information. It could be an email message, the contents of a database, or files stored on a laptop. Encryption, or encoding, is the method by which information is converted into “secret code” that hides the information’s true meaning. Data encryption is a security method where information is encoded and can only be decrypted (decoded) by a user with the correct encrpytion key. Encrypted data appears scrambled or unreadable to a person or entity accessing the information without permission.

Why should data be encrypted?

We encrypt data to keep it confidential. It is used to deter malicious or negligent parties from accessing sensitive data. Data encryption is part of a broader class of cybersecurity countermeasures known as data security. Data security is all about keeping our data safe from unauthorized access, ransomware lockup, breach or malicious corruption, i.e. changing data to make it useless.

What types of devices should be encrypted?

Any device that holds the key to sensitive information should be encrypted.

  • Mobile device encryption: Laptops, smartphones and USB drives can all be encrypted. This will protect any data that is on these devices.
  • Workstation encryption: Like laptop encryption, desktops and workstations can be encrypted to protect any data that is stored on them. Workstation encryption is very important in the event of a break-in and theft of workstations. Without encryption, a stolen workstation may result in a data breach.
  • Email encryption: Emails could contain sensitive information and should be encrypted. Secure email will protect the data that is sent.

How is data encrypted?

Modern data encryption is a form of cryptography, an ancient technique of hiding information by substituting one character for another. Encryption works by means of a complex mathematical algorithm known as a data encryption cipher. Like the secret decoder ring found in your child’s cereal box, the cipher algorithm transforms normalized data (i.e. plaintext) into a sequence of seemingly random, unrecognizable characters. This is the “ciphertext.” 

The ciphertext is unreadable, at least for any real meaning. The phrase, “Hi, how are you?” might encrypt into a ciphertext that reads, “8363, 5017, 11884, 9546.” To get back to “Hi, how are you” requires a process of decryption. Decryption involves the use of the same algorithm that was used in encryption, except this time, the mathematical “key” that was used to change plaintext to ciphertext is put to work changing it back to plaintext.

Who should use data encryption?

You don’t have to be a secret agent to want to keep your data confidential. In fact, you might be using encryption without even knowing it. Many technology services encrypt and decrypt your data so it will be safe when they use it. Businesses should encrypt any data that could damage their bottom line if breached.

Is data encryption 100% reliable?

While data encryption technologies make it extremely difficult to cybercriminals to see confidential data, it is not 100% reliable. Encryption relies on the use of keys, which are long strings of numbers that enable the mathematical encryption algorithm to work. Typically, keys come in pairs, one for the sender of encrypted information, the other for the receiver. You need both to make the algorithm work. However, hackers can figure out the keys. Once they have the keys, they can easily decrypt data and steal it. This takes a process known as “brute forcing,” where the hacker uses a powerful computer to guess at the numbers in the key. The longer the key, the harder it is to use brute force. If the key were very short, say three digits long, it would be relatively easy to crack. You’d have 999 options before you figured it out. Today’s keys are far, far longer. A 128-bit key, which is standard in today’s encryption practices, requires over 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible key combinations to crack! This seems impossible, even for a supercomputer, but it can happen.

How can I protect my data?

Data encryption is a given in today’s world of cybersecurity. Hardly any responsible security programs are without it. To be ensure your data is safe, educate your organization on best practices for data use and sharing.

For the best in today’s data security solutions, contact Simplify Tech!


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