What Is Encryption? (Definition, Importance and Types)

Updated 24 March 2023

Technological devices have become important in storing crucial information and confidential records. Data encryption is a key component of ensuring such records are secure from unauthorised personnel. Learning how encryption works can help you understand how to use encryption and where it may be essential. In this article, we explore the definition of encryption, discuss its importance, describe the types of encryption, provide examples and outline a career in cryptography.

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What is encryption?

Encryption is the act of transforming readable data into unreadable forms and encryption tools ensure data is secure during storage and between users. Users may not decrypt the data without a unique code, key or password. This can ensure that only authorised users view or alter data.

Decryption is converting unreadable data into readable form. Encryption limits the number of people who can access data, since only a few users have the decryption key or code. The computer may use an encryption key to convert the data from a readable to an unreadable form.

Importance of data encryption

Here are reasons data encryption may be essential:

Enhances the security of company data

Encryption may allow the company to add an extra level of security to sensitive and confidential information. This can also apply when company employees communicate sensitive work-related information on a network. If an employee were to misplace a device, such as a phone, laptop or tablet, an encryption passcode may prevent anyone else from accessing the data on the device. The company may also develop encrypted communication lines, which may be helpful in transferring sensitive information.

Related: Examples of Cyber Security Roles (With Salaries and Skills)

Promotes privacy

Encryption may limit access to records, emails and other messages as it allows only verified individuals to access such data. If the company handles customer details such as bank information, encryption can be a valuable tool to ensure customer privacy. For example, when customers make payments, encryption can ensure that only the consumer has access to bank details. Consumers may be more likely to choose the company that utilises encryption. Lack of encryption can make the company susceptible to attacks, discouraging current and future customers.

Maintains the company's integrity

Data encryption may help the company maintain its integrity by preventing outside sources from manipulating any data. If the company stores large quantities of data, it may be easy for hackers to make small unnoticeable changes that alter the business's brand image. For instance, hackers may try to change the company's website posts. Encryption may ensure that specific company employees can enforce such changes.

Ensures the company adheres to regulations

Encryption technology may be an essential component of data security, especially if the company handles sensitive user information. For instance, businesses in the healthcare sector may require encryption to ensure the privacy of patient records. If the company fails to comply, this leads to loss of privacy, which may cause fines. Regulations and penalties may vary depending on the industry.

Types of data encryption

You may divide data encryption into symmetric and asymmetric encryptions. This classification may depend on whether the encryption and decryption keys are similar. You may refer to symmetric encryption as secret-key cryptography, where the sender and receiver use the same key for encryption and decryption. Asymmetric encryption may involve the use of one key to encrypt the data and a different key to decrypt data. There are multiple subtypes of data encryption that fall under symmetric and asymmetric encryption. Here are additional types of data encryption:

Rivest-Shamir-Adleman encryption (RSA)

RSA encryption is a type of asymmetric encryption that requires two encryption keys to function. The sender may use their key for the initial encryption of data, while the recipient may use the second key, which is private, to decrypt the message. Having two keys makes it challenging for hackers to access a message. RSA is unique in that the encryption keys may be larger or longer than other keys, and such keys may be harder to hack. RSA may be one of the oldest and most secure forms of encryption.

Related: Examples of Cyber Security Roles (With Salaries and Skills)

Blowfish encryption

Blowfish encryption is a symmetric type of encryption that may involve dividing the encrypted information into segments. For instance, blowfish encryption utilises multiple sub-keys instead of having one encryption key. This may decrease the likelihood of a hacker gaining access to the actual key. Blowfish encryption is free for use by the public. Online markets may use this type of encryption to secure a website users' login information or secure payments on online shopping and subscription sites.

Twofish encryption

Twofish encryption is a symmetric type of encryption, like the blowfish encryption method. Twofish encryption is unique because of the fast speed of encryption, and users may also select the speed they desire, meaning they have complete control of the encryption process. Many organisations and individuals may prefer using Twofish encryption because it's easily accessible to the public.

Triple data encryption algorithm (TDES)

The triple data encryption algorithm, a type of symmetric encryption, may use a single encryption code three times during the encryption process. The sender may encrypt data, decrypt it and re-encrypt all using one encryption key before sending it. Upon receiving the message or information, the recipient may also use the encryption code to decrypt the encrypted data, re-encrypt and decrypt it again. The multiple steps of encryption and decryption may be more challenging for external sources to intercept. This triple encryption may also be why triple data encryption takes longer than other types of encryption.

Format Preserving Encryption (FPE)

FPE is a newer type of encryption process, and it may involve keeping the data in plaintext form. Plaintext is the form of data that hasn't undergone encryption. In this type of encryption, the encrypted data format may be in readable form, and the receiver may find it quicker and easier to decrypt information. Organisations that prefer to preserve client information, such as words, numbers or symbols, such as identification numbers and account details, may use this type of encryption.

Related: How to Become a Security Consultant (With Career Steps)

Examples of where encryption is applicable

Here are examples of ways that companies and users utilise encryption:

  • Cloud storage encryption: Cloud storage is a system that can allow users to store their data remotely in specialised storage servers. The company that provides cloud services may use encryption keys to ensure client data is safe and free from spyware.

  • Secure socket layer (SSL) encryption: This may be an important way of securing internet data. Web designers may use SSL encryption to prevent hackers from accessing information during data transfer from public servers to personal devices, such as computers.

  • Email encryption: This encryption secures sent and received messages from data attackers. Email encryption protects the user by encrypting a message during transfer and decrypting it only once the right recipient receives it.

  • Authentication encryption: Authentication encryption may allow companies to test the validity of payment cards or devices by sending users a message that contains an authentication code. If the user inputs the correct code, this may signify that they have the decryption key, which means the transaction is authentic.

  • Field encryption: This may be essential in protecting information only in specific areas on the company's website application. For instance, if users input details into the company's website, the organisation can encrypt the individual's address, name and credit card number.

  • Time stamping: Time stamping may involve proving that a user sent a message and that the recipient received it at a specific time. Once the recipient receives the message, an encryption model allows the sender to receive information about the time of receipt without recording details about the message.

Related: What Does a Data Analyst Do? Definition and Job Duties

Cryptography as a career

Cryptography is the study of secure communication methods that permit only the sender and the recipient to view the information. Organisations that handle sensitive and confidential information may find the services of a cryptographer essential to protect such data. Most companies that operate digitally may also require encryption and decryption services.

Organisations that may find data encryption essential include government facilities, intelligence agencies, private companies, investment agencies, the military and financial institutions like banks. Applying to work for such institutions and organisations may involve a thorough background check to ensure you're a trustworthy candidate. To begin a cryptography career, you may focus on jobs that relate to cybersecurity, information technology, computer science and language analysis.

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