Technology Basics: Encryption

Technology Basics: Encryption

Secrets need to be protected. That’s why humans created cryptography. Cryptography can be traced back to around the time the pharaohs ruled Egypt, but today’s cryptography is a lot different than simple hieroglyph replacement. Cryptography used in the computing systems today is called encryption. For this week’s tech term we will look back at the history of encryption and how it is used today to facilitate data security and personal privacy.

Tales from the Crypt-ography
As long as there has been civilization there has been sensitive information. The hubris of God-Kings aside, even ancient rulers knew that if certain messages were intercepted that it would put their rule at risk. The same concept that we use today to keep messages secure have been used in one form or another for the past few centuries; the use of a cipher and a key that allows that cipher to be uncoded.

The most early cipher was used by one of the most famous humans of the era, Julius Caesar. By using simple substitution with the normal alphabet (by shifting letters a fixed amount) in his official communications, he was able to get his messages through despite the amount of people who could have touched any given message. Since most of the people of the day were illiterate, the Caesar cipher was a success. Cryptography wouldn’t always be so simple, however, and over the next 1,300 years multiple cultures made big innovations on the Caesar cipher.

Historians have found that cryptography advanced greatly over the past 700 years with the establishment of polyalphabetic ciphers, most notably in the venetian city state where warring republics within what is now modern-day Italy facilitated the advancement in encrypting messages. Noted renaissance man Leon Battista Alberti is remembered as the “Father of Western Cryptography” for his Alberti cipher, a polyalphabetic cipher that ushered in a new exposition of cryptanalysis and cryptography.

As the world has grown more connected the use of encryption has exploded. From the development of the Playfair cipher to the German Enigma machine, sending coded messages became necessary as technology replaced travel as a means of long distance communication. This brings us to the encryption that we depend on today.

Today’s Encryption
The encryption used today has the same purpose as the Caesar cipher did over 2,000 years ago: to conceal data. Since our computing and networking technology has developed exponentially over the past 60 years, encryption has had to as well. We depend on encryption today for a lot of the technology we’ve come to take for granted. Every time you swipe your credit card, you are using encryption; every time you make a call or text from your smartphone there is encryption.

Encryption in the digital world also has a cipher and a key, it’s just that the cipher and key are both much more complicated than they’ve ever been. To make it easier to understand we will break it down into the two types of modern encryption: symmetric key algorithms and asymmetric key algorithms.

Symmetric Key Algorithms
Symmetric key algorithms use related or identical encryption keys for both encryption and decryption. So say you have a message that you want to encrypt. You would write the message and then put it in an encrypted box and lock it with a key. If the person receiving a message has acquired a version of the same key he/she can unlock the box (and therefore the message) with that key, but it has to be the same key or a version of that key configuration. Anyone that has a version of that exact key will have access to the message in the encrypted box.

Asymmetric Key Algorithms
You may have guessed, asymmetric key algorithms work a little differently. We’ll use the same example. With this kind of encryption, you have two sets of keys, a public key and a private key. While each person the message was sent to would have access with the public key, they would also need to have a private key to open the box containing the message. The benefit is that it adds a layer of security as it takes a specific private key to unlock the box holding the message.

Of course, this is a very simple way of describing a very complex system, but for our purposes, it helps to understand the differences between symmetric and asymmetric encryption.

Popular Types of Encryption
Today there are several types of encryption that are used. Here are some of the most popular:

The Advanced Encryption Standard is a symmetric encryption algorithm and is used by many organizations to secure sensitive data. It uses a block cipher that encrypts data one block (essentially a small chunk of raw data) at a time. There is AES-128, AES-192, and AES-256.

Triple Data Encryption Standard is a symmetric encryption algorithm that uses three separate 56-bit keys, and encrypts it three times for a total of 168-bit.

Twofish is a symmetric block cipher based on its predecessor, Blowfish. It provides encryption up to 256 bits and is available for use without restrictions.

Where You’ll See Encryption In Play
When you are on the Internet, you are likely experiencing encryption in some form or another all the time. Many websites use Secure Socket Layer (SSL) to encrypt the transfer of data to protect the personally identifiable information the website collects. This is extremely important when inputting passwords and credit card information, so if you don’t see the lock in your browser or you get warnings that the website you are visiting might not be secure, you’ll want to be wary of sharing sensitive information.

We can also help businesses encrypt their email correspondence, file transfers, or remote access to your network while traveling. This will protect your data from the eyes of those who might be able to intercept it.

Today, encryption is making a digital world possible. If you would like to gain more information about encryption, data security, and privacy, call one of our professional IT experts today at (703) 821-8200.

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