What Is Encryption and How Does It Work?

Cybersecurity Threats

You may not realise it, but you use encryption on a daily basis while browsing the web. Even while you read this, data between you and our server is being encrypted and decrypted in the context! But, what exactly is encryption, and how does it work?

In this article, we’ll look at what encryption is, what it does, and how it can be used in the cybersecurity industry.

What Is Encryption?

Encryption is the method of encoding or locking data to avoid unauthorised access. It transforms plaintext data into gibberish that the reader can’t understand. The encrypted data tends to be a random array of alphabets and digits. If you encrypt the word “Hello,” for example, it will appear as “n587ngw8y7356nhgiej39!”

Data is encrypted using complex mathematical algorithms and digital keys. The data can only be decrypted and read by someone who has the correct authorization, such as a password, private key, secret code, or session key.

So, in terms of real-world implementations, what does encryption entail? In real life, encryption is used in a number of ways. Consider the following scenario:

  • Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other big search engines encrypt your search queries as well as the data they gather about you.
  • All third-party cloud storage platforms encrypt your files, including Google Drive, Dropbox, and Amazon AWS.
  • Encrypting personal files, images, videos, addresses, wallet cards, notes, and audio recordings is possible with a variety of encryption software applications (both free and paid).
  • SSL/TLS certificates are used by website owners to encrypt data transferred between a website’s server and a website visitor’s browser.
  • To improve protection, software publishers use code signing certificates to encrypt the hash value of downloaded software, drivers, and scripts.
  • To improve the protection of your email correspondence, companies use email signing certificates (S/MIME) or personal authentication certificates to sign and encrypt your messages.
  • The content of files and records can be encrypted with the help of a document signing certificate.
  • Data privacy laws and regulations apply to companies that work in specific sectors or handle specific types of data. The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, both demand that personal information be encrypted.

What Does Encryption Do?

Now that you know that encryption covers and protects data from unauthorised users, the next issue is how it works.

Let’s take a look at this definition with Bob, Alice, and Mallory to get a better understanding of encryption.

  • Bob writes Alice a message. While the letter is in transit, Mallory (the villain) gains access to it. She can read, interpret, and even change the message until it reaches Alice since the letter is in plaintext.
  • Bob and Alice decide to use a trick to solve the dilemma. They will substitute the original alphabet with its next-to-next-to-next-to-next-to-next-to-next- That means A=C, B=D, C=E, X=Z, Y=A, Z=B, and so on.
    Instead of sending the message “HELLO,” Bob now sends “JGNNQ.”
  • Now, if Mallory (or someone else) gets their hands on the letter, all they’ll see is a bunch of gibberish! When Alice receives it, however, she understands the trick and reverses each letter of the message two steps in the alphabet to decode the message.

In a nutshell, this is encryption! Let’s take a closer look at some of the words we used in this example.

A Breakdown of Terms Related to the Encryption Process

The encoded text “JGNNQ” is referred to as ciphertext. It’s the unreadable text that results from encrypting a message with an encryption algorithm and key. Only the corresponding key can be used to decrypt ciphertext.

Encryption is the method of translating the plaintext “Hello” into the ciphertext “JGNNQ.” Encryption is accomplished by the use of keys that are composed of mathematical algorithms. Encryption may be symmetric or asymmetric, and we’ll go through these concepts in more detail later.

Keys: The trick of replacing individual letters within a message with those that are moved one or two spaces in the alphabet that we mentioned earlier is a generalisation of what’s known as an encryption key. It is an encryption key because Bob uses it to encrypt the data. Alice decrypts the ciphertext with the same key. It’s also known as the decryption key for this purpose.

These keys are generated using mathematical algorithms in real life. AES, RSA, Blowfish, ECC, Twofish, and other well-known encryption algorithms are examples. The keys mimic a long string of numbers and letters. It seems to be like this.

image

There are two primary types of keys.

Symmetric key: A symmetric key is one that is used for encryption and decryption using the same key.

Asymmetric key: In this case, the public key and private key are two different but mathematically connected keys. Everyone has access to the public key, and anyone can use it to encrypt data. It does, however, have a special pair of private keys that must be kept hidden from the owner. The data can only be decrypted by the owner of this private key. To encrypt and decrypt data, you can need both the public and private keys.

Is It Possible to Break the Encryption?

People sometimes wonder if hackers can crack encryption in addition to wondering what encryption is. As a consequence, indeed, it is probable. There are two ways to circumvent or “crack” current encryption methods:

1) The Encryption Key Is Stolen or Leaked

The confidentiality of the keys is critical to the success of this whole encryption. The master key must be kept safe in symmetric encryption, and the private key must be kept secret in asymmetric encryption.

Any data encrypted with those keys will be compromised if these keys are not held safe and are leaked. The data can be decrypted by anyone who has the appropriate key. In most cases, you must immediately contact the certificate authority, which will revoke your certificate and grant a new one.

2) The Cybercriminal Uses Bruce Force Attacks

The keys are generated using a robust algorithm that is nearly impossible to guess with human brains. To decrypt any text encrypted with the 256-bit RSA algorithm, for example, it takes 2256 different combinations. It will take 3.31 x 1056 years for computers! However, quantum computers seem to be capable of breaking certain algorithms.

Before a few years, the SHA-1 hashing algorithm, for example, was thought to be “impossible to break.” However, it was broken by experts using supercomputers, and all browsers agreed not to trust any certificates that used SHA-1 in 2017.

How Much Does Encryption Cost?

Encryption is a boon for protecting data in storage, and it also assists in the protection of data in transit. So, how far does encryption set you back? If you think a technology that relies on such advanced algorithms would set you back an arm and a leg, think again! The tools and certificates that make encryption possible are relatively inexpensive. A simple SSL/TLS credential, for example, costs as little as $8.78 per year. A S/MIME or personal authentication certificate, on the other hand, costs just $12.95 per year.

There are several free or low-cost encryption software available on the market that encrypt documents, data, photographs, and other media content if you’re a person who wants to use encryption. For freelancers and remote workers who need to safely move and store their professional work, these tools are highly recommended.

What Does Encryption Do in an SSL/TLS Certificate?

An SSL certificate is used to encrypt data sent between two endpoints, typically a website and the browser of a website visitor. Let’s look at an example of how that method works:

How Keys Are Allocated

  • Let’s say you’re the owner of a website and you purchase an SSL certificate for your domain (s). On the server where the website is hosted, you must start a process known as a certificate signing request (CSR).
  • The public key and private key are two mathematically related unique keys created by the server.
  • The public key must be sent to the certificate authority (CA).
  • The CA issues an SSL certificate for the domain after successful validation, ties its public key to it, and signs it with its own intermediate root certificate.

How to Transfer Data Using Asymmetric and Symmetric Encryption Simultaneously

  • When a user visits your website, their browser creates a session key and encrypts it with the public key associated with the SSL/TLS certificate.
  • The session key is sent to the server of the intended website. Using the corresponding private key, only the intended server can decrypt the session.
  • This symmetric session key is now used to encrypt and decrypt all data sent back and forth between your server and the user’s device.

As you can see, data moving between your website and browser is encrypted even while using an unsecured internet link. This information can be intercepted by anyone. The attacker, on the other hand, cannot read, view, steal, or alter it if it is encrypted. They’ll need the session key to decrypt the data in order to do so.

The session key, on the other hand, is encrypted and can only be decrypted by the private key, which is only available to the intended website. Without a private key, accessing the session key is difficult. As a consequence, the information you submit over the internet is secured on two occasions. An SSL/TLS certificate protects the website’s visitors’ data from man-in-the-middle attacks, session hijacking, data theft, eavesdropping, and other online threats in this way.

How Does Encryption Work in Personal Authentication Certificates?

Often both types of encryption keys (i.e., a public and private key) are used at the same time to encrypt data. In this way, certain email signing certificates and personal authentication certificates (PAC) function. To understand the process flow when two email clients have installed a S/MIME certificate, consider Bob and Alice:

  • When Bob sends Alice an update, his email client encrypts the message with Alice’s public key.
  • If an encrypted message hits Alice’s email client, she just wants her own private key to decrypt the message, which her email client can do. Since Bob encrypts the data with Alice’s email client’s public key, only the private key associated with it will decrypt it. This private key is only available to Alice.
  • Alice now answers and encrypts her message using the private key of her email client and the public keys of Bob.

The entire conversation will be encrypted in this way, and only the intended recipient’s email client will be able to decrypt it.

Wrapping Up Our Explanation of “What Is Encryption”

More and more corporations and government departments are going paperless and storing their details online. Financial information, contact records, healthcare-related data, business trade secrets, and even sensitive political data are all included in this data. When transmitting or storing such confidential data over the internet, protection must be a top priority. Many forms of crimes, such as identity theft, financial fraud, ransomware attacks, and so on, can have devastating implications for people, companies, and governments if such sensitive data is leaked.

Encryption is one of the most efficient ways to encrypt classified information. When anyone intercepts encrypted data, they are unable to decrypt it or use it for personal gain. We hope that this article has given you a better understanding of how encryption works.

Melina Richardson is a Cyber Security Enthusiast, Security Blogger, Technical Editor, Certified Ethical Hacker, Author at Cybers Guards & w-se. Previously, he worked as a security news reporter.