In the computing world, encryption is the conversion of data from a readable format into an encoded format that can only be read or processed after it's been decrypted.

Encryption is the basic building block of data security and is the simplest and most important way to ensure a computer system's information can't be stolen and read by someone who wants to use it for nefarious means.

Utilized by both individual users and large corporations, encryption is widely used on the internet to ensure the sanctity of user information that's sent between a browser and a server.

That information could include everything from payment data to personal information. Firms of all sizes typically use encryption to protect sensitive data on their servers and databases.

The Need for Encryption

Beyond the obvious benefit of protecting private information from being stolen or compromised, encryption also provides a means of proving that information is authentic and comes from the point of origin it claims to come from. It can be used to verify the origin of a message and confirm that it hasn't been altered during transmission.

The Key to the Door

The basics of encryption revolve around the concept of encryption algorithms and "keys." When information is sent, it's encrypted using an algorithm and can only be decoded by using the appropriate key. A key could be stored on the receiving system, or it could be transmitted along with the encrypted data.

Methods

A number of methods are used to code and decode information, and those methods evolve as computer software and methods for intercepting and stealing information continue to change. These methods include:

  • Symmetric Key Cipher: Also known as a secret key algorithm, this is a singular method of decoding the message that must be provided to the receiver before the message can be decoded. The key used to encode is the same as the one used to decode, which makes it best for individual users and closed systems. Otherwise, the key has to be sent to the receiver, which increases the risk of compromise if it's intercepted by a third party, such as a hacker. The benefit is that this method is much faster than the asymmetric method.
  • Asymmetric Cryptography: This method uses two different keys — public and private — that are linked together mathematically. The keys are essentially just large numbers that have been paired with each other but aren't identical, hence the term asymmetric. The public key can be shared with anyone, but the private key must remain a secret. Both can be used to encrypt a message, and the opposite key from the one originally used to encrypt that message is then used to decode it.

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