Understanding Data Encryption
If you've ever logged into a healthcare portal, bought something online, or logged into a website that starts with "https" then you've used encryption. It's used for everything from protecting your emails, to guarding top secret documents - and more importantly, it's the only technology that can make the internet truly safe. It's important to know encryption basics.
Encryption is a system that encodes a message or file so that it can only be read by certain people. Encryption scrambles data — such as an email or file — using a program called an algorithm or cipher. A long string of data, called a cryptographic key, works like a password to protect the file. Once the data is encrypted, it looks like meaningless gibberish to anyone trying to access it. The only way to read it is by using the key to decrypt (unscramble) the data.
There are two basic types of encryption: symmetric and asymmetric. Symmetric key encryption uses the same key to encrypt and decrypt the data. Asymmetric encryption uses two keys: one to encrypt data, and one to decrypt it. It’s often referred to as public key encryption, because people who use it make the encryption key public, but keep the decryption key private. Anyone can send them an email or file encrypted with their public key, but only they can read it, using their private decryption key.
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) comprises three block ciphers: AES-128, AES-192 and AES-256. Each cipher encrypts and decrypts data in blocks of 128 bits using cryptographic keys of 128-, 192- and 256-bits, respectively. The Rijndael cipher was designed to accept additional block sizes and key lengths, but for AES, those functions were not adopted.
Symmetric (also known as secret-key) ciphers use the same key for encrypting and decrypting, so the sender and the receiver must both know, and use, the same secret key. All key lengths are deemed sufficient to protect classified information up to the “Secret” level with “Top Secret” information requiring either 192- or 256-bit key lengths. There are 10 rounds for 128-bit keys, 12 rounds for 192-bit keys and 14 rounds for 245-bit keys. A round consists of several processing steps that include substitution, transportation and mixing of the input plaintext and transform it into the final output of ciphertext.
The best way for many to be familiar with what encryption is and how it works is to see an actual example. As previously mentioned, a plain text file becomes unreadable once it is encrypted.
As you can see, encryption makes a file un-readable and thus prevents data from being seen by unintended viewers. In the example above, we used the Cipher Block Chaining (CBC) cipher mode to encrypt a simple text file. The encryption process requires a password to encrypt and decrypt a file. It’s very important to note that an encrypted file cannot be decrypted without a password.
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