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What Is Encryption, and How Does It Work?

calendar icon August 22, 2022 | by Steve Ellis

In the current threat landscape, it would be unwise to think a business is too small for a cyberattack. Today, everyone, from multinational corporations to mom-and-pop shops, is a live target.

 

According to IBM’s Cost of Data Breach Report 2022, the average cost of a data breach increased by 2.6%, from $4.24 million in 2021 to $4.35 million in 2022. The average cost also rose by 12.7% from USD 3.86 million in 2020.

 

As the stakes are higher than ever before, it’s now critical for companies to adopt a proactive approach to cybersecurity and leverage tools like encryption to keep their name out of the headlines.

 

What is Encryption?

 

Data encryption is a security measure that protects sensitive data by scrambling readable information, making it useless in the event of data breach. Encrypted data can only be accessed by an individual or entity that holds the decryption key (or a secret code).

 

An encryption key is essentially a sequence of numbers used to encrypt or decrypt data. Algorithms generate these encryption or decryption keys. Each encryption key is always random and unique.

 

Encryption software takes “plain text” from documents, emails, and text messages and scrambles it into “ciphertext,” an unreadable format. This approach not only helps protect the confidentiality of digital data in motion or at rest but also helps secure data in hardware (like a computer or an external hard drive like a USB).

 

When it comes to messaging or emails, both the sender and recipient must use the secret code or encryption key to decipher or unscramble the message into a readable format.

 

Encryption is the go-to approach to secure databases with sensitive information. This includes vast amounts of personally identifiable information, intellectual property, and just about any sensitive data stored in the cloud or on servers.

 

As organizations are increasingly digitally transformed, encryption plays a crucial role in minimizing the impact of data loss. 

 

What Are the Different Types of Encryption Solutions?

 

Two leading types of encryption methods are used to secure data: asymmetric encryption and symmetric encryption.

 

Asymmetric Encryption

 

Asymmetric encryption solutions use two different keys for encryption and decryption. In this case, a public key (shared with users) encrypts the data, and the private key (never shared with users) decrypts the data.

 

Symmetric Encryption

 

In contrast, symmetric encryption solutions use the same key to encrypt and decrypt data. This means that the sender will share the secret decryption key with all authorized users when sharing the data.   

 

Encryption Algorithms

 

There are different types of encryption algorithms. An encryption algorithm is a set of rules that typically governs devices like computers and smartphones. The data scrambled with encryption algorithms also looks like randomized code.

 

Asymmetric Encryption Algorithms 

 

There are two leading types of asymmetric encryption algorithms:

 

1. Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC)

 

Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) leverages complex mathematical models to encrypt data. The ECC algorithm makes it easy to process the encryption, but it’s almost impossible to undo the algorithm.

 

2. Rivest–Shamir–Adleman (RSA)

 

Rivest–Shamir–Adleman (RSA)  is an industry standard and is well-known for being robust. The RSA encryption key size can be anywhere between 1024 bits to 2048 bits. The key size makes RSA impossible to crack, but encrypting data in this manner is a slow process.

 

RSA is an excellent option for organizations that only have to choose among the amount of data encrypted, security, and time spent. Organizations often use RSA encryption to secure lighter data like browser apps, digital signatures, and SSL/TLS certificates.

 

Symmetric Encryption Algorithms

 

There are three leading types of symmetric encryption algorithms:

 

1. Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

 

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is a popular approach used to resolve weaknesses related to short key lengths. This is because short key lengths are vulnerable to brute force attacks. AES is also the industry standard for symmetric encryption.

 

AES uses a block cipher to encrypt one block of data at a time. The AES encryption key also expands into several rounds with multiple mathematical steps to transform the key into ciphertext.

 

AES encryption takes three forms (based on the block size and number of rounds):

 

  • AES-128 encryption 128-bit sized blocks over ten rounds
  • AES-192 encryption 192-bit sized blocks over 12 rounds
  • AES-256 encryption 256-bit sized blocks over 14 rounds

 

2. Blowfish

 

Blowfish is a block cipher developed with key length encryption variations between 32 bits to 448 bits, but it divides the data into fixed 64-bit blocks. The Blowfish encryption technology is free and is a popular choice of online retailers.

 

3. Twofish

 

Twofish, as you might have guessed, is the upgraded version of Blowfish. Twofish leverages 16 rounds and a variable key that can be extended up to 256 bits and completely transform 128-bit blocks of data. 

 

Along with AES, Twofish is one of the most flexible encryption algorithms in the marketplace (justifying its popularity).

 

What Are the Benefits of Encryption?

 

The benefits of encryption are many and hard to ignore. Leading encryption benefits include the following:

 

Data Integrity

 

Encryption helps increase the integrity of data. Although encryption alone can’t ensure data integrity, it’s an important tool that is part of an overall enterprise data security strategy. It’s easy to make critical business decisions confidently because you can trust the data.

 

Whenever businesses deal with poor data quality, it often leads to project failure (leading to a waste of resources). High-quality untampered data helps organizations better understand their customers, business processes, and much more.

 

Can Be Used Across Devices

 

One of the primary advantages of modern encryption systems is that you can quickly apply it to almost all devices available in the marketplace. For example, data can be encrypted and decrypted on smartphones, tablets, laptops, and portable hard drives. So, in the event of  data theft, you can rest assured that the information is inaccessible. 

 

Secures Data in the Cloud

 

Enterprises can confidently store their data on a cloud backup or database, knowing that it’s encrypted. Even if hackers manage to breach the cloud service provider, the information exposed in the data breach will be rendered meaningless.

 

This approach also ensures that third-party cloud providers can’t access the information stored in public clouds. The same is true for government authorities like law enforcement. You can only access encrypted cloud data with the corresponding decryption key.

 

Encryption is Cost-Effective

 

Encryption is cheap; a data breach isn’t!

 

As you can secure data on devices and the cloud, businesses can minimize the cost of a potential security event. Most devices can also be secured using free encryption software like BitLocker.

 

Cloud providers also offer encryption services at an affordable price. So, you won’t have to break the bank to protect your sensitive data. At the same time, encryption is always the cheapest option when you consider the cost of a data breach and compliance violations.

 

Avoid Regulatory Fines

 

As alluded to above, encryption can also help avoid hefty fines for regulatory compliance violations (including HIPAA, PCI DSS, GDPR, and CCPA). Depending on the industry, there will be different policies governing data privacy and data security. It’s always best to encrypt by default rather than keep it optional.

 

In the event your cloud provider falls victim to a cyberattack or an employee loses a device with sensitive information, data encryption will work in the organization’s favor. In this case, encryption is like an insurance policy against privacy, security, and compliance violations.

 

Builds Consumer Trust

 

When major data breaches fail to expose customer data, it helps build their trust. In an era when data breaches have become the norm, highlighting the fact that your business encrypts data can provide a competitive advantage.

 

Enables Secure Remote Work

 

The risk of a security event is considerably higher when you add remote working into the mix. Neither home nor café Wi-Fi services are on par with enterprise technology, so the need for robust encryption is paramount.

 

Worse, remote workers are also known to store confidential business information on their personal devices. So, encrypting business data by default will help ensure that no one else gets access to it.

 

What Are the Drawbacks?

 

Like most things in the world, encryption also has some disadvantages. However, the good news is that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

 

Before you encrypt any data, it’s important to note that while encrypting all your data might make it more secure, it will impact operations and performance. For example, it will be nearly impossible for staff to seamlessly access the data to get work done.

 

Employees will generate and share oceans of data by the minute in today’s highly collaborative digital environments. However,  if you add encryption at this juncture, it can quickly become impossible to manage.

 

Encryption has also become a tool used by hackers in ransomware attacks. Whenever threat actors identify a vulnerability or a weak endpoint, they will penetrate enterprise networks, install their malware, and hold your data for ransom.

 

As a result, encryption alone should never be your cybersecurity strategy. Instead, it should be  a critical part of your overall cybersecurity and data protection strategy. It’s also vital to implement a robust key management solution to ensure that enterprise data is accessible at all times.

 

There are multiple effective encryption methods to consider. Most often, businesses go with AES to secure their data and messages. In fact, AES has been the U.S. government standard for 20 years.

 

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Categories: Security, Internet of Things, Business Process Management, Strategy, Data, cyber security, malware, cyber crime, IT Management, Network Security, proactive network security, Security Breach, Cloud Computing Security, managed security services, supply chain attack, it security, Network, Email Security, Digital Transformation, Data Breach, Encryption

Steve Ellis

About Steve Ellis

Snow hater, technology lover, information sharer, camper, biker, and hiker. Steve Ellis has been with Office1 since 1995. He’s filled many positions from a brand new copier tech to his current position serving as the VP of Professional Services. He has a passion for learning and sharing the knowledge that might make someone’s life easier. He holds several certifications including MCSA and MCITP. He is currently working on his CompTIA CySA+. Steve has been in the copier industry for more than 25 years and has been interested in tech since 2000.

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