Definition: Data encryption is the process where data is translated into a different code or form, such that the only people who can access and read it are those who have a decryption key, which is also referred to as a secret key. Encrypted data is also known as ciphertext. Unencrypted data is referred to as plaintext. Considering the security threats in the global environment, encryption is one of the best policies businesses, organizations, governments, and individuals are using to protect their data.
Why Data Encryption?
Information is one of the most valuable assets in any organization. Efforts towards system protection are geared towards three results: confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data. However much someone might try to make you believe it, no security control is 100 percent effective. Encryption is the last prevention mechanism that is often implemented, especially in a layered security model.
Most people hear the mention of encryption and believe they are safe already. This is another fallacy. Encryption is not the end of your troubles. Some hackers have access to very powerful computers that can decrypt any such information. Therefore, encryption is one of many procedures that you can implement to protect your interests.
Cryptography is a scientific concept where complex logic and mathematical equations are used to generate robust encryption methods. Once the meaning of the undersigned data is obfuscated, the artistic element of cryptography comes into play.
Cryptography can be traced back to Sun Tzu’s art of war. Field commanders, secret agents, and other relevant parties relied on information. To keep this information from falling into the wrong hands, they had to hide its meaning. This allowed them the benefit of surprise, timing, and concealed maneuver. The earliest forms of cryptography relied on codes, transposition, and substitution to conceal their messages.
The threat of cybercrime is always rising. In response, security systems must be built more sophisticated than they were before. Experts keep trying to tighten their grip on communication security to make sure there are no loopholes that hackers can exploit. This is done through data encryption.
Types of Data Encryption
There are two types of data encryption: asymmetric encryption and symmetric encryption.
Asymmetric encryption uses private and public keys. Both of these keys are mathematical and perform a specific role within the operation. Data that is encrypted with a public key can only be decrypted with a private key and vice versa; it is impossible to encrypt and decrypt data with the same key.
Private keys must be kept private, lest the security of the entire system is compromised. In the case that you believe the private key has been hacked or compromised in any way, you are required to generate a new one. Asymmetric encryption is considered a stronger and better option compared to symmetric encryption in terms of data protection. However, the challenge with asymmetric encryption is that it’s slower than symmetric encryption. As a result, it is not the best option for bulk encryption.
In asymmetric encryption, data is transferred between two parties. Both the sender and the recipient will receive an access key set. The sender must encrypt the information with its private key before it is sent. The recipient on the other hand must use their public key to decrypt the information.
To efficiently use this encryption method, digital certificates are used in the client-server communication platform. This certificate holds critical information, such as the location of the user, their email address, the organization to which the certificate originated, the public key of the user, and any other information that can be used to identify the user and their server.
Whenever the server and client need to communicate over encrypted information, they must both send queries across the network, informing the other of their intentions. Once the queries are received, the recipient receives a copy of the certificate. This certificate holds the public key the recipient will need to access the encrypted information.
One of the most prominent uses of asymmetric encryption is in blockchain computing. Bitcoin especially made this form of encryption very popular, because it was used in determining proof of work in Bitcoin mining. In the Bitcoin ecosystem, the Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (ECDSA) is used to generate private and public keys. These keys then legitimize the digital transactions involved. Through asymmetric encryption, it is very difficult for anyone to alter any information that has already been loaded onto the blockchain.
Asymmetric encryption is currently being adopted by many businesses and organizations. While it can be scaled up for different purposes, the two main reasons why companies use it are for encryption and creating digital signatures. Digital signatures authenticate data, giving validity to the communications. The recipient is confident that they are accessing information from the sender without the risk of a data breach happening anywhere in between. This eliminates the risk of man-in-the-middle attacks.
Digital signatures also confer an element of finality to information shared. The sender cannot claim at a later date that they did not sign or authorize the document. Once their digital signature is appended to it, they are responsible for it.
The commonly used algorithms in asymmetric encryption are:
- El Gamal
As soon as the digital signature is verified, the protocol checks to ascertain whether the content is still the same as it was when the sender appended their signature. If any changes have been made to the original copy – even the slightest change – authentication will fail.
Symmetric encryption is considered one of the conventional encryption methods. It is most likely the easiest. The encryption is performed by using one secret key (symmetric key). Both the recipient and sender have access to the secret key, which is needed to encrypt and decrypt the information. Before the sender dispatches the message, they must encrypt it using the symmetric key. The recipient, on the other hand, must use the same key to decrypt the message.
Considering how simple the encryption and decryption process is, symmetric encryption is easy and takes a shorter time compared to asymmetric encryption. There are many modern approaches to symmetric encryption, which use unique algorithms such as the following:
- Blowfish – This is an algorithm that was built to replace DES. It is a symmetric cipher that splits messages into 64-bit blocks and individually encrypts each of the blocks.
- AES – This is a standard encryption method used by the US government and a lot of organizations. AES is very reliable in 128 bits but can also be used as 192 bits and 256 bits, especially for resource-intensive encryption.
Other algorithms include:
Even without your knowledge, you constantly use symmetric encryption to access the internet. The most common application is when the client interacts with a server that has an SSL certificate. The server and client negotiate a connection and, once approved, they exchange 256-bit session keys to allow communication over an encrypted network.
Comparing Symmetric and Asymmetric Encryption
While asymmetric encryption requires two keys, symmetric encryption only uses a single key. Therefore, symmetric encryption is a rather straightforward approach. Both of these encryption methods access data through a secret key.
While symmetric encryption has been in use for a long time, it does have challenges, especially insecure communication, which necessitates the need for organizations, entities, and individuals to adopt asymmetric encryption. The main advantage that symmetric encryption has over asymmetric encryption is that you can transfer a lot of data through it.
Asymmetric encryption was created in response to the challenge of sharing keys as we see in symmetric encryption. Therefore, with public-private keys, you no longer have to share keys to access encrypted information.
Challenges in Implementing Encryption
Data protection is one of the most common discussions that is being had at the moment. It is a priority that cannot be wished away. Companies that have suffered data breaches in the past also suffered financial losses in terms of compensation packages and expensive lawsuits.
The need for encryption is driven by two factors: compliance and the need to reduce risk. To do this, there exists an elaborate path to encryption that involves classifying risks, discovery, protecting the system, enforcing encryption protocols, and evaluating/ monitoring the network to make sure everything runs as it should. Encryption might have been in use for many years, but some challenges are unique to the process that must be considered when implementing encryption solutions. We have outlined some of these challenges below.
Performance challenges – Encryption will always add performance overhead to your systems. The higher your need for encryption, the more you should spend on getting supercomputers that can process large transactions without straining resources. Without this, you must brace yourself for a sluggish performance for all the other systems connected to your network when you are encrypting or decrypting some data.
Managing encryption programs – You have to determine the best encryption method that’s suitable for your business. However, this is not the end of your challenges. You must also think about building a plan for system integration and establishing an environment that is secure and reliable.
Are you certain your encryption programs will meet the compliances and requirements in your industry? How easy is it for you to integrate the encryption protocols in data formatting, performance testing, and setting formal policies?
Key length – The other concern that companies experience with encryption is the appropriate key length and algorithms. There are several algorithms available. Choosing the best one depends on the development environment you operate in. At the same time, the ideal encryption key should be longer to reduce the risk of easy decryption. However, at the same time, the longer the key, the heavier network resources you will have to allocate to encryption and decryption. This will affect other parts of the business.
Key management – Key storage and management is the other challenge in encryption. Once you have your data encrypted, where do you store the keys? This is a critical discussion. You must consider this in terms of the approaches that are aligned with your business needs. Ensure you keep changing the keys regularly and never use swap keys. Keys must only be accessible on the premise.
Data discovery – How do you access the encrypted data? The business needs swift access to important data. This is a board-level decision, from where the relevant stakeholders can agree on the best way and assign data custodians.
Data querying – Querying encrypted data will help with retrieval when needed. This data can be stored on the cloud or the premise. The challenge for most organizations is that some data will be decrypted several times, especially if it is important to the daily operations of the business. This also increases the risk that hackers might intercept the decrypted data. Remember that subsequent decryption also increases resource demands.