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Understanding Encryption – What is Encryption?

written by: Sheila Robinson•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 7/31/2011

Privacy and security are important issues. Encryption is tool that helps with the protection of personal and sensitive material. What defines encryption? How does it work? These questions are answered.

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    Defining Encryption

    Encryption Encryption is a word that is associated with mystery and secrecy. It is tool that has been used to help protect information. Private messages, military strategies, and financial data are some examples of things that have utilized encryption. The simple definition of encryption describes it as a process that scrambles ordinary text or data into an illegible form. The recipient of the scrambled message would then need to decipher it by using a key or method to make it legible.

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    How Does It Work?

    There are types of encryption that are used for specific uses and work in different ways. One is public key encryption. It uses mathematical asymmetrical algorithms with a computer program to create two keys. One key is public and used to encrypt a message. The second key is private, and used by the recipient to decrypt the message. This method is commonly used with the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) and the Transport Security Layer (TSL) technique to transmit encrypted information over the Internet.

    Another method is secret key encryption. Using symmetrical algorithms, a single key is made from a combination of numbers or letters. Both the sender and receiver have the same key to encrypt and decrypt the message. The simplest variation of this method is the substitution cipher. Used for text messages, it simply switches letters to different ones further down the alphabet. The idea of this originally came from Julius Cesar. A common substitution cipher used today is the ROT13, which switches letters of a message 13 letters further down the alphabet.

    Secret key encryption has been used to protect computer hard drives, blocking “Pay per View” transmissions on cable TV and hiding movie/book spoilers on the Internet. However, it is not considered the most secure method since knowledge of the key can be compromised if steps are not taken to prevent it from being discovered.

    For higher security encryption, variations of the public and secret key encryption types have been created. The current United States standard for encryption methods (as of 2002), called the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) uses a combination of a substitution cipher, matrix multiplication and the exclusive XOR method to prepare data and keys for secure transmissions.

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    Why is Encryption Important?

    The security of information has become more important since the introduction of the Internet. Sensitive information like credit cards, banking transactions and social security numbers need to be protected. How can businesses and the average person protect themselves from having their information compromised? As technology grows, the definition of encryption evolves. More sophisticated encryption methods will need to be created to protect the personal interests of consumers and business from theft. Technology influences the security of our most sensitive and private data. Our encryption methods try to discourage the hackers and other intruders who want to compromise our information. The best thing we can do is try to stay one step ahead of them at all times.

    How does encryption work towards helping us in the future? The evolution of encryption is moving towards a future of endless possibilities. Everyday new methods of encryption are discovered. Scientific research tells us that there are other concepts like quantum cryptography that will take us to new levels of security. Only time will tell us what the future will bring.