More and more every day, we need to keep our data safe and secure. That’s where encryption comes in. But how does encryption work, and what are the different encryption systems? Keep reading to learn more.
In this article, I’ll explore exactly how encryption works, explaining it in plain English that anyone can understand. I’ll also help you discover whether you can encrypt files for free using software available on your PC, if you need to download free encryption software, and when you may want to pay for a license.
Here’s an overview of what I’ll discuss:
- What is Encryption?
- Symmetric and Assymetrical Key Systems
- How to Choose the Best Encryption Method
- Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
- Can You Encrypt Files Using Software Already On Your PC?
- Encryption Software Options
Let’s dive right in!
What is Encryption?
Encryption is an approach to encoding data (for example, files or messages) to ensure only authorized individuals are able to access or read the information. Encryption uses complex algorithms to scramble the information you send.
After the recipient gets the data, it can be decrypted through the use of a key that is given by the message’s originator.
There are various factors that determine an encryption technology’s strength.
These are the effectiveness of the algorithm, how appropriate the encryption system is, and key length. Encryption means that data will be unreadable to individuals unauthorized to see it.
Another plus of encryption technology is the fact that it helps ensure data integrity. Certain algorithms protect your data from tampering and forgery.
The authorized parties must correctly deal with the encryption and decryption keys in order for the encryption technology to keep your information safe.
Understanding the Lingo
One of the challenges of understanding encryption is the terminology. Let’s take a look at some of that below:
- Algorithm: We also refer to an algorithm as a cipher. The encryption process uses the algorithm as its instructions or rules. Some examples of encryption algorithms are triple DES, AES, and RSA.
- Decryption: The decryption process is when the unreadable cipher text is converted into readable data.
- Key: A key is a randomized progression of bits that the encryption and decryption processes use. Each of these keys is unique, and the longer the key is, the more difficult it is to break. The most common lengths for keys for private use are 128 and 256 bits. When it comes to public keys, 2048 bits are the most common length.
Symmetric and Asymmetric Key Systems
There are two main kinds of cryptographic key systems: asymmetric and symmetric.
Symmetric Cryptographic Key System
A symmetric key system is one in which the same key is in the possession of all authorized parties. The keys involved may be used for encrypting and decrypting messages.
The keys must be kept safe. To use this system, you will need a way to securely get the keys to all authorized parties, without risking others seeing them. As this can be tricky, this is an impractical system for commercial use.
Asymmetric Cryptographic Key System
Another name for an asymmetric key system is a public/private key system. There are two keys in this kind of system.
The private key is the key that is kept secret. The second key is called the public key, and everyone who needs it has access to it.
There is a mathematical relationship between the public and private keys. This means that data encrypted using the public key are only able to be decrypted by using the private key.
How to Choose the Best Encryption Method
There are several factors you should think about when deciding on the kind of encryption standards to use.
- The sensitivity of the data to be exchanged
- The way the data will be transported (for example, HTTP, email, or FTP)
- Whether there are large files that need compression that will be exchanged
- Whether the files will need encryption before they are transmitted, or if the connection itself should be encrypted
- The encryption standards that your trading partners are able to support
You may be dealing with a trading partner that only supports certain encryption standards.
An example of this would be banking institutions. They tend to require that customers use the Open PGP encryption standard to encrypt files.
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is the foundation for most types of encryption. This standard can create 128 and 192-bit, as well as 256-bit, keys.
A key’s bit length indicates its strength. When a key is longer, it is more difficult to decipher without authorization.
Even if you don’t know anything about encryption, you have probably noticed that SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and TLS (Transport Layer Security) protected websites use encryption.
Examples include websites where you enter personal or financial information, and many other sites you visit on the internet (like the one you’re on right now, for example). This kind of encryption provides added security.
You should find yourself on this kind of secured page when you’re shopping online and go to a checkout page. Your device begins a sort of digital handshake as you begin the checkout process.
It does this by transmitting an information package to the server with which it wants to make the connection. It asks the server for identity verification. In response, the server transmits a digital certificate.
This is code that has both an encrypted signature and a public key. These serve as proof that the server is what it presents itself to be.
The certificate will be accompanied by a public key. This key is then used for transmitting encrypted messages.
These are sent to the server. However, this public key is unable to decrypt the messages.
Only the private key can do that. The private key, of course, is with the server alone.
Understanding Email Encryption
The way encryption functions with email will be determined by which protocol is used. S/MIME (Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) and PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) mix all of the strategies we discussed above for sending and receiving encrypted email.
Both S/MIME and PGP give you client-side encryption. This means that your email will be encrypted from the moment you send it to when your recipient opens it.
When you send an email, no party (including the email provider) is able to read what is in it. That is because they don’t have your key.
Both of these kinds of encryption can be tricky for average users, as they are challenging to configure. Also, they usually require that the recipient is using the same protocol.
If they aren’t, they will have trouble decrypting the message. With PGP, users need to do a key exchange prior to sending encrypted messages.
If you use S/MIME, people must buy digital certificates. You can buy these by way of a certificate authority (CA).
Certificate authorities will usually charge fees for digital certificates that are for use in business. They will sometimes provide free ones if they are only going to be used by individuals for personal use.
Does My PC Already Have Encryption Software on It?
Yes, you can encrypt files using Windows. There are several ways that you can do this. You will be able to encrypt folders and files using these methods.
Windows has two primary built-in encryption capabilities:
- BitLocker is one of these. This is the most secure and popular method. However, it won’t make it easy to choose and encrypt individual folders and files. You will have to do this by creating an encrypted file container using VHD.
- The other way to encrypt files is to use the encrypting file system (EFS). However, this isn’t a very good choice for extremely sensitive data.
While some argue that third-party encryption is the way to go no matter what, in some cases you may be forced to use third party encryption.
For example, if you use Windows 10 Home, file encryption is not available to you unless you upgrade your OS or use a third party tool.
Third Party Encryption Software Options
There are several popular software options for encryption.
One that you can use free of charge is VeraCrypt.
The basic version of this software is entirely free. Some users do find the downloading process a little difficult, but once you have it downloaded and established, you should find it quite intuitive to use.
If you are willing to pay for your encryption software, you can get a paid tier of VeraCryst. There are also several other options.
One other example is Folder Lock. Folder Lock has a free basic version, too.
One drawback of Folder Lock, however, is that it is primarily focused on mobile devices. But if your mobile device is your main concern, this might be a great choice for you.
If you don’t mind software that is a little bit more complex, you may want to look at CryptoExpert. CryptoExpert is for Windows desktop devices.
It gives you safe data vaults in which you can store all your information. This makes sure that it is always safe and secure if your device is breached.
CryptoExpert’s encryption is stronger than that provided by many other programs. The vaults can be of unlimited size, so you won’t have to worry about limits.
You can try CryptoExpert on a 30-day trial.
Final Thoughts: How Does Encryption Work?
Encryption is a valuable tool for keeping your sensitive data and files safe and secure. It is especially useful when you are sending information, though any individual who keeps sensitive information on their personal computer should look into encryption options.
If you’re sending sensitive information, encryption is essential, but in today’s online ecosystem, everyone can benefit from it.