Protecting your data and its confidentiality is crucial. Whether you send data via email, the cloud or another method, encryption adds another layer of security, especially since encryption standards are constantly evolving.
But what exactly is encryption? What are the different types and algorithms? How do you create an effective encryption strategy?
What is Encryption?
Encryption is a process that protects and secures data from cyber attacks. It’s when the sender uses a key to encrypt or encode data (documents, files and messages) from its readable plaintext format into ciphertext, which is incomprehensible and unreadable.
The only way for the authorized receiver to decrypt or decode the data back into its readable plaintext is with the key, which is a string of random words, numbers or letters organized in a specific sequence that scrambles up the data, so it becomes undecipherable. This stops unauthorized users like cyber criminals and hackers from accessing the data; even if they were able to steal your data, they can’t read it.
Encryption often helps businesses meet their cybersecurity compliance requirements. However, some encryption algorithms can be susceptible to brute-force attacks, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
You can encrypt data in three situations:
- When it’s in transit (when the data is being sent or accessed between two parties)
- When it’s at rest (when it’s being stored in a database)
- When it’s end-to-end (across the entire data lifecycle)
The Two Types of Encryption
There are two main types of encryption: symmetric and asymmetric.
Symmetric encryption (AKA private key cryptography) is when a single private key (128 or 256 bits in size) is used to both encrypt and decrypt the data. This is the older and more well-known technique of the two, as it is faster, less complex and cost-effective. Symmetric encryption works best for closed systems or when bulk data needs encryption.
There are two types of symmetric encryption:
- Block ciphers: it divides data into fixed-size blocks and then encrypts the data.
- Stream ciphers: it encrypts the data one bit at a time.
A downside with symmetric encryption is that you must generate a new key for every contact. You also need a secure method to transfer the key between the sender and receiver so hackers can’t intercept it.
Asymmetric encryption (AKA public key cryptography) involves two keys for encryption and decryption: a private key and a public key. The owner keeps the private key secret, and the public key is shared among authorized recipients or made available to the public. You use one key to encrypt the data and the other to decrypt it.
Asymmetric encryption is the newer method of the two, and it’s more mathematically complex. The process uses prime numbers to create the two keys since it’s difficult to factor large prime numbers and reverse-engineer the encryption, which is what hackers rely on.
The issue with asymmetric encryption is that its key size is 2048 or higher, making it slower. However, it is more secure than symmetric encryption since the key doesn’t need to be shared.
Hashing is a technique that’s often incorrectly referred to as an encryption method, but it’s highly effective. It creates a fixed-length value based on a mathematical formula that summarizes the file or message contents; no key is used, and the data can’t be deciphered or reversed back.
Hashing is typically used to store and retrieve data, as well as for document verification, digital signatures and integrity controls.
The 7 Types of Encryption Algorithms
Encryption algorithms transform the data from plaintext to ciphertext back to plaintext. The algorithms depend on several factors, including the type of keys used, the key length and the size of the encrypted data blocks.
- Triple Data Encryption Standard (3DES): 3DES is a type of symmetric encryption that applies three private 56-bit keys to every data block. It was developed to replace the original DES, one of the first modern encryption tools from the 1970s, but it’s slowly becoming outdated since it’s slower than other encryption algorithms and encrypts data in shorter block lengths, making it easier to decrypt. Microsoft Office and Firefox commonly used 3DES, and it’s used to encrypt UNIX passwords and ATM PINs.
- Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA): RSA is a type of asymmetric encryption that depends on the prime factorization of two large randomized prime numbers that creates another large prime number. Only someone with knowledge of the numbers can decode the data, making it extremely difficult for hackers. It’s mostly used to send encrypted data between two communication points, in key protocols or verify digital signatures. However, it isn’t a good tool for large or numerous files.
- Advanced Encryption Standard (AES): As a successor to DES, this symmetric encryption uses three keys (128 bits, 192 bits and 256 bits) to encrypt data in blocks. AES was developed by the S. National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1997 as another alternative to DES, and it’s known for its robust security and speed. This algorithm is heavily trusted by the government and is used for confidential communications and classified information by governments, security groups and common enterprises. AES is also used for file and application encryption, Wi-Fi security, VPNs and SSL/TLS protocols.
- Blowfish: This symmetric encryption breaks messages into fixed 64-bit blocks and encrypts them individually. Designed in 1993, it was also created to replace DES by being fast, flexible, efficient, secure and, most of all, free to the public. Blowfish is used in e-commerce platforms, security payments, password management tools, email data encryption tools and backup software.
- Twofish: As Blowfish’s successor, this free symmetric encryption is more advanced and quicker. It encrypts data in 128-bit blocks in 16 rounds, no matter the key size. Twofish is often used for software and hardware environments and file and folder encryption.
- Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC): ECC is an asymmetric encryption that uses a curve diagram to represent points that solve a mathematical equation. It combines elliptical curves and number theory to encrypt the data, making it fast, strong and efficient. This relatively new method is used for web communication security, one-way email encryption and cryptocurrency digital signatures.
- Format-Preserving Encryption (FPE): FPE is a symmetric encryption that encrypts the data in a similar format and length. It’s often used to secure cloud management software and tools and in financial and retail systems.
How to Create an Effective Encryption Strategy
- Collaborate: It takes teamwork to develop an effective strategy. Create a team consisting of your IT, operations and management teams.
- Define requirements: Understand your security requirements, and identify any legislation, laws and guidelines you must follow. You can always undergo a threat assessment to uncover vulnerabilities.
- Identify data: All companies have data that need encrypting, ranging from customer information to financial data to company account details. Classify this data based on sensitivity, how often it’s used and how it’s regulated.
- Choose your tool(s): Choose a solution or multiple solutions that best meet your requirements. Some data will require higher levels of encryption, so a range of encryption types and algorithms can protect different data.
- Maintain a culture: After implementing your encryption options, you should educate your team on proper encryption and key management methods (key rotation, key stretching, secure key storage, etc.).
Thriveon and Encryption
At Thriveon, we understand the importance of protecting your data and maintaining a secure workplace. That’s why we provide proactive managed IT services and cybersecurity compliance services that align your business with best practices.
Schedule a meeting and start protecting your company today.
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