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Few cybersecurity mechanisms are as critical to modern data protection as encryption. But what exactly is it? Why is it necessary? And, most importantly, how can you take advantage?

Read on to learn the ins and outs of encryption, including how it works, why it’s significant, and what your organization can do to safeguard sensitive information.

What is encryption?

At its most basic, encryption is a process of concealing data to prevent anyone but the intended recipient from reading it. More specifically, it’s the use of mathematical models called encryption algorithms to scramble information in a way that can only be unscrambled with a particular key — an inverse process known as decryption.

Encryption can be very simple or highly complex depending on the application. For instance, a business that processes sensitive data (such as financial information) will need a strong, reliable algorithm to encrypt it. Lower-risk use cases don’t need quite as much assurance, so a more basic encryption technique may be sufficient.

What’s the difference between encryption and cryptography?

Encryption is closely related to cryptography, but they’re not the same.

Broadly speaking, cryptography is the science of securing communications through code. It’s an umbrella term for a long list of cryptographic techniques, with data encryption being just one of them. So, in short, encryption is a specific application of cryptography that encodes information using algorithms.

Why is encryption important?

Encryption is one of the most important elements of modern data security. With bad actors targeting sensitive information at an accelerated rate, organizations are using various encryption methods to keep assets under lock and key.

It’s especially important for businesses to encrypt sensitive data now that enormous amounts of it are being managed, stored, and transferred online and in the cloud. Previously, data protection was a bit easier when enterprises were storing the majority of their assets on-premises.

Now, however, most business processes take place digitally. As a result, hoards of financial, medical, and personal data are at risk of unauthorized access and exposure — that is, if they aren’t adequately protected.

Encryption is a vital safeguard if your organization suffers a data breach. Not only does it keep sensitive information private, but it can also authenticate its origin, validate its integrity, and prevent nonrepudiation. In other words, encryption methods allow you to ensure critical data isn’t manipulated, faulty, or disputable in any way.

Aside from information security, this process is also important from a compliance perspective. Organizations are subject to strict data security laws, which differ depending on where they operate. For instance, U.S. government agencies are required to follow Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS). By law, agencies and contractors must implement cryptography.

Another example is Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR levies harsh fines against companies that fail to protect personal data, which is why most organizations that process EU citizen information take encryption and decryption so seriously.

Encryption use cases

There are many ways you can use data encryption to help your company, whether it be for information security, compliance, or as a competitive advantage. Let’s examine three common use cases:

  1. Data encryption: With digital transformation comes data — and with that, a swarm of bad actors trying to steal it. Data encryption safeguards against the threat of information stored on computer systems or transmitted over the internet from being accessed by anyone other than the intended recipient.
  2. Cloud encryption: As more businesses transition away from on-premise technologies, cloud encryption is helping them access resources with confidence. Cloud storage providers encrypt information before it's stored, ensuring it can’t be read if they experience a data breach. Notably, encryption methods consume more bandwidth, which is why cloud storage providers typically offer only basic techniques.
  3. Internet browsing: Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS) are protocols used to encrypt internet connections. They use cryptographic assets called “digital certificates” to confirm the authenticity of a website, browser, or other entity, allowing you to safely share sensitive data during a session.

How does encryption work?

Generally, encryption works by using an algorithm to encode plaintext (data that’s readable by humans) into ciphertext (an encrypted message). The message can only be decoded using a password or string of numbers known as the encryption key. Today’s advanced algorithms ensure each encryption key is random and unique, making it almost impossible for someone to correctly guess.

Indeed, cryptography has come a long way from its simple origins. Take the “Caesar cipher,” for example. Named after the famous Roman emperor Julius Caesar, who used this encryption technique in his private correspondence, the Caesar cipher worked by substituting one letter for another in the alphabet, thereby scrambling the message.

Modern techniques have become much more advanced, incorporating thousands of computer-generated characters to represent the decryption key. That said, we can still group all algorithms into two distinct types: symmetric and asymmetric encryption.

Symmetric encryption

Symmetric encryption works by using the same key for encryption and decryption. This means the entity sending the encrypted message must share the secret key with all authorized parties, enabling them to access the information. Symmetric encryption is typically used to store data at rest (data that’s not actively in use or moving from one place to another).

Although this makes them faster to deploy, these ciphers require a parallel and secure method to get the key to the recipient for decryption. In turn, it can be cumbersome to implement.

Asymmetric encryption

Asymmetric encryption uses a system called “public key infrastructure.” Rather than a single shared key, this technique requires two separate cryptographic assets for encryption and decryption — the “public key” and the “private key.”

Although they’re separate, both keys are mathematically linked. Normally, the public key is shared with all parties, whereas the private key is kept secret from everyone except the entity receiving the encrypted message. Despite being more resource-intensive, asymmetric encryption is considered a more secure, high-assurance technique. However, in the grand scheme of data security, most organizations leverage both techniques to their advantage for a more comprehensive encryption strategy.

What is hashing?

Hash functions transform inputs of variable length to return outputs of a fixed length. In other words, hashing is a process of converting a key or string of characters into a random “hashed value,” making it harder to decipher.

As opposed to encryption, hashing is a one-way process that can’t be easily reversed. Companies can apply hashing algorithms to data, ensuring the information remains private even after a data breach.

Encryption and hashing are related, yet different processes. Whereas the former protects the privacy of small amounts of data in transit, the latter maintains the integrity of large amounts of data in storage.

What is an encryption algorithm?

An encryption algorithm is a mathematical set of rules that transforms plaintext into ciphertext. The algorithm uses encryption keys to alter data in a way that appears random but can be unscrambled using the decryption key.

Notably, no two algorithms are exactly alike. Many types have emerged over the years, each one taking a different approach to cryptography. Some of the most common and essential include the following:

  • Data Encryption Standard (DES): Developed in the 1970s, DES has long been rendered obsolete by modern computing. Consider this: It took engineers 22 hours to crack DES encryption in 1999. But now? With today’s resources, it takes minutes.
  • Triple Data Encryption Standard (3DES): As the name implies, 3DES runs DES encryption three times. It encrypts, decodes, then re-encodes it. Although a stronger alternative to the original encryption protocol, it has since been considered too weak for sensitive data.
  • Advanced Encryption Standard (AES): AES encryption has been the most common encryption type since its creation in 2001. Known for its combination of speed and security, it deploys a substitution technique that can have keys at 128, 192, or 256 bits in length.
  • Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA): This asymmetric system is named after the three scientists who created it in 1977. It’s still widely used today and is especially useful for encrypting information over the internet with either a public or private key.
  • Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC): As an advanced form of asymmetric encryption, ECC relies on discovering a distinct logarithm within a random elliptic curve. The larger the curve, the greater the security, as this means keys are more mathematically difficult to crack. For this reason, elliptic curve cryptography is considered more secure than RSA.
  • Next-generation cryptography: The National Institute of Standards and Technology has shortlisted several up-and-coming algorithms, such as CRYSTALS-KYBER and CRYSTALS-Dilithium. New, more sophisticated methods like these are poised to help organizations combat the cybersecurity challenges of the near and distant future.

Clearly, there are many options when it comes to data encryption. However, there’s no universal solution. It’s important to consider various factors based on your data security needs. These can include the level of assurance you require, performance and efficiency standards, compatibility, and more.

A good first step is to understand how sensitive your data actually is. Ask yourself: How devastating would it be if this information were accessed or exposed in a data breach? This will help you identify an encryption type that works best for your specific use case.

Encryption challenges

It’s plain to see that encryption is essential to modern cybersecurity. Be that as it may, implementing and managing it is easier said than done.

There are several current and emerging challenges you’ll have to mitigate when leveraging encryption throughout your organization. Let’s take a look at each one in more detail:

1. Key management

Key management is the practice of overseeing cryptographic keys throughout their lifecycle (e.g., issuance, renewal, revocation, etc.). It’s a fundamental aspect of any successful encryption implementation, as the compromise of any cryptographic key could lead to the collapse of your entire security infrastructure.

Think about it: If a hacker gets their hands on your keys, there’s little stopping them from stealing and decrypting sensitive information or authenticating themselves as privileged users. That’s why key management so heavily relies on putting standards in place for the creation, exchange, storage, and deletion of keys.

Unfortunately, governing your cryptographic scheme isn’t easy, especially if you’re using a manual process. That’s why many organizations deploy key management systems that can automate and simplify the workflow at scale. With the right solution, you can avoid common lifecycle challenges including:

  • Improperly reused keys
  • Non-rotation of keys
  • Inappropriate key storage
  • Inadequate protection.
  • Vulnerable key movement.

2. Cyber attacks

Hackers often center their attack strategies around acquiring cryptographic keys. But, if they can’t, they don’t simply go home empty-handed — they do everything in their power to break in anyway.

This is known as a “brute force attack.” In simple terms, bad actors repeatedly attempt to crack passwords, credentials, and encryption keys to forcibly gain unauthorized access. They work through all possible combinations hoping to guess correctly.

Although this hacking method isn’t very efficient, it’s still a notable risk factor. The more sophisticated your encryption algorithm, the less likely it is that an attacker will succeed. Fortunately, modern keys are generally long enough that brute force attacks are impractical, if not impossible.

Another notable cyber threat is ransomware. While encryption is normally used as a data protection strategy, malicious cybercriminals often use it against their targets. After successfully harvesting your data, they encrypt it so you can’t access it again. Then, they demand a lofty ransom payment in exchange for the information’s safe return.

3. Quantum computing

Quantum computing applies the laws of quantum physics to computer processing. In short, this makes a quantum computer much more powerful than a conventional one. Although still in development, this technology will soon have tremendous benefits for industries far and wide, such as health care, finance, and more.

In 2019, Google published a groundbreaking research article. The study announced that, for the first time ever, a quantum computer solved a mathematical problem faster than the world’s fastest supercomputer.

Better yet, it did so in just 22 seconds. For comparison, it would take a classical computer over 10,000 years to solve the same problem.

Why does this matter? Because it marked a significant milestone in the development of cryptographically relevant quantum computing. In other words, there will soon be a day when a viable quantum computer will be able to shatter even the most sophisticated asymmetric encryption algorithms available today.

Although that day has yet to arrive, experts anticipate it’ll come sooner than later. In fact, McKinsey predicts that over 5,000 quantum computers will be operational by 2030. And, when they are, it’s only a matter of time before one is used for more harm than good.

That’s why companies like Entrust are leading the pack when it comes to post-quantum cryptography (PQC). We aim to help organizations implement quantum-resistant cryptographic systems that can protect them from the eventual quantum threat. By getting ahead of the curve, you can effectively mitigate risk today and well into tomorrow.

Encryption best practices

Worried about successfully implementing encryption? Don’t be — we’re here to help. Here are a few best practices to consider when leveraging cryptographic systems to your advantage:

  1. Encrypt all types of sensitive data. It sounds obvious, but too often businesses only encrypt data that’s out in the open and most likely to be found. Instead, take a holistic approach to cryptography and ensure all critical information is protected.
  2. Evaluate performance. Firstly, ensure your algorithm is adequately securing data. Then, assess performance to see if it’s using too much computing power or memory. This is important, as you don’t want to overburden system resources. Plus, as data volumes increase, it’s essential your chosen encryption technique can scale accordingly.
  3. Strategize data at rest and in motion. This is often when information is at its most vulnerable. Encrypting data at rest protects assets stored on physical devices, whereas securing data transmission mitigates the risk of interception and exposure.
  4. Consider industry regulations and laws. There are many overlapping requirements related to data security and privacy. It’s best to understand your company’s specific obligations so that you can adequately implement and manage the right solutions.
  5. Always protect your keys. Cryptographic keys underpin the security of the entire encryption strategy. Protect them in a hardened environment, such as a hardware security module (HSM).
  6. Migrate to post-quantum cryptography. The best way to do this is to prioritize your highest-value assets by taking inventory of your cryptographic keys. Then, according to best practices, test your scheme’s quantum preparedness. Finally, after assessing your capabilities, plan ahead to meet PQC standards over time.

Entrust your encryption to us

Starting your encryption journey can be daunting. However, we at Entrust are here to help you get the ball rolling in the right direction. How? With the industry’s widest portfolio of cryptographic products and solutions.

Take SSL encryption, for instance. We offer Secure Sockets Layer and Transport Layer Security services to help you manage encryption keys and certificates at scale. Our high-assurance solutions keep your business and customer data secure without sacrificing speed and efficiency.

Better yet, Entrust’s nShield hardware security modules are an ideal root of trust for your entire cryptographic system. Our HSMs are hardened, tamper-resistant devices that allow you to safely generate, manage, and store encryption and signing keys for complete lifecycle management.

Bottom line: Encryption is a foundational component of any effective data security strategy. With Entrust, you can simplify the effort and protect your business from threats of all shapes and sizes.

Check out our latest Global Encryption Trends Study to find out how organizations like yours are benefitting from cryptographic solutions.