How to Encrypt Data: Data Encryption 101 and Best Practices

Explore the significance of data encryption. Safeguard your information by understanding the advantages, techniques, and recommended approaches for securing data.

What is data encryption?

Encryption requires concealing information from unauthorized individuals or entities.

Data refers to various forms of information, such as emails, database contents, or files stored on devices like laptops.

The primary purpose of encrypting data is to maintain its confidentiality. This practice falls under data security and access control, which aims to protect data from unauthorized access, ransomware attacks (where data is maliciously encrypted), breaches, or other forms of malicious interference, such as data tampering.

How does data encryption work?

Modern encryption of data is a type of cryptography, an ancient method of concealing information by replacing one character with another. Encryption is a combination of English and Greek, meaning “in hidden” or, more loosely, “in hiding.” Encryption operates using a complex mathematical algorithm called a data encryption cipher. Like the secret decoder rings found in children’s cereal boxes, the cipher algorithm converts regular data (plaintext) into a series of seemingly random, unidentifiable characters known as “ciphertext.”

The ciphertext is indecipherable. For instance, the phrase “Hi, how are you?” might encrypt into a ciphertext like “8363, 5017, 11884, 9546.” To revert to “Hi, how are you?” requires a decryption process.

Decryption, which involves converting ciphertext back to plaintext, employs the same algorithmic “key” used in encrypting data

Who needs to use data encryption?

Data confidentiality is necessary for almost everyone, not just secret agents. Encryption is widely used in various technology services to protect data without users’ awareness. Businesses should use encryption that, if breached, could harm their financial standing. Similarly, individuals use to encrypt sensitive personal information such as medical records and social security numbers.

Benefits of data encryption

Data Integrity: Encryption is crucial in maintaining data integrity by detecting any alterations or corruption in encrypted data, allowing for swift action against potential fraud and data breaches.

Device Protection: Encryption technology enhances device security by minimizing data transfer risks and implementing advanced authentication processes, ensuring data security across multiple devices.

Remote Office Security: As remote work becomes more prevalent, managing encryption helps safeguard data from theft or accidental loss, ensuring remote office security.

Regulatory Compliance: Encryption assists organizations in complying with industry-specific regulations by ensuring the safe handling and storage of customer data.

Cloud Data Security: Encrypted storage guarantees data privacy when transferring data in the cloud storage, ensuring cloud data security.

Intellectual Property Protection: Encryption of data is essential for safeguarding intellectual property such as music or software, preventing unauthorized use, duplication, or reverse engineering, particularly when used with digital rights management systems.

Data encryption solutions

There are two primary types of encryption solutions: data at rest and data in transit.

Data at rest refers to information stored on servers or computer hard drives. On the other hand, data in transit involves the transmission of data through email or internal system-to-system messages within a network.

Different solutions are available for data at rest and data in transit, each with its own implications. To encrypt data at rest, applications that require access to encrypted data must be configured with the ability to decrypt it. Various data security solutions, such as BitLocker for Windows or FileVault for macOS, are available.

For encrypting data in transit, both the sender and receiver must have the capability, which is the key to encrypt and decrypt. This type of encryption is known as end-to-end encryption (E2EE). Encryption in transit protects data as it is being transmitted between two or more parties, ensuring that unauthorized individuals cannot intercept or read it. Meeting these requirements can be administratively challenging, particularly when sending encrypted messages outside an organization, leading to increased complexity.

Common data encryption types

These are the most prevalent types of data classification encryption. The two different encryption methods are public key, also called asymmetric encryption, and private key, known as symmetric encryption. While both use key pairs, they differ in how the keys are shared between sending and receiving parties and how they manage the encrypt/decrypt process.

Public key encryption – asymmetric encryption

In public-key/asymmetric encryption, the sender encrypts the data using a publicly known key. The receiver possesses the private key, corresponding to the public key used for encryption. To decrypt the data, the receiver uses the private and public keys.

Private key encryption – symmetric encryption

In private key/symmetric encryption, both the sender and receiver share the same secret key. However, managing and securely transmitting these secret keys can be challenging due to the associated overhead.

Common data encryption algorithms

Organizations, encryption products, and government agencies utilize different encryption algorithms today. Some of these algorithms include:

DES (Data Encryption Standard)

A symmetric key algorithm, DES (Data Encryption Standard) has been significant in the evolution of data encryption. Developed in the 1970s, it gained widespread acceptance as a cryptographic standard for securing information. DES operates on 64-bit data blocks and uses a 56-bit key size, considered strong when it was introduced. However, with advancements in computing power and the development of more sophisticated attacks, the DES algorithm is now considered relatively weak regarding security.

Triple DES (3DES)

Triple DES (3DES) is an encryption technique that enhances security by applying the Data Encryption Standard (DES) algorithm multiple times in a cascading manner. This triple-layered approach involves encryption, decryption, and encryption operations in each round, significantly increasing the key length to 112 or 168 bits. This makes 3DES more resistant to attacks and other cryptographic vulnerabilities than DES. However, 3DES is being phased out for more advanced encryption algorithms.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) is a widely adopted symmetric key algorithm renowned for securing sensitive data. Built on the Rijndael block cipher, AES provides high security and efficiency. It processes fixed-size data blocks, usually 128 bits, and supports key sizes of 128, 192, and 256 bits. AES employs substitution, permutation, and mixing operations for robust encryption. It is utilized by the US federal government and in consumer technologies such as the Apple Macintosh computer.

RSA

RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman) is one of the earliest and most commonly used modes of asymmetric cryptography for securing data in transit. Developed in 1977, RSA is founded on the mathematical principles of prime numbers and modular arithmetic. It employs two keys: a public key for encryption and a private key for decryption. The strength of RSA lies in the impossibility of deriving the private key even if the public key is known.

Elliptic curve cryptography (ECC)

Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) is an encryption algorithm that utilizes the mathematical properties of elliptic curves, providing a high level of security with shorter key lengths. This makes ECC well-suited for scenarios with limited resources. Due to its smaller key sizes, ECC offers faster computations, reduced memory requirements, and decreased bandwidth usage, making it a favored choice for government agencies such as the NSA.

Twofish

This cipher is a highly secure symmetric key block cipher, renowned for its robust resistance against cryptographic attacks. Operating on 128-bit data blocks, it offers key sizes ranging from 128 to 256 bits, providing flexibility for various security needs. It employs a sophisticated key schedule, multiple rounds of substitution and permutation operations, and a meticulously crafted Feistel network structure. These features collectively enhance its resilience and make it highly secure against attacks.

How to encrypt your data

If you’re considering basic encryption of data for your devices, there are numerous accessible options, many of which are low-cost or free. Android phones running Android Gingerbread (2.3.x) or later typically feature full-device encryption. Encryption uses default on Pixel Phones and Nexus 5+, while on earlier Android versions, it needs activation. To set up encryption on an Android device, configure a lock screen PIN, pattern, or password, then navigate to Settings > App Settings > Security & Location. Under “Encryption,” select “Encrypt Phone.” This straightforward process establishes end-to-end encryption.

For computer data encryption, various solutions are available from companies like Symantec, Kaspersky, Sophos, and ESET. Encrypted USB drives are also an option. Email encryption can be achieved using software such as DataMotion SecureMail, Proofpoint Email Encryption, and Symantec Desktop Email Encryption.

Data encryption best practices

These are the best practices for data security using various data encryption tools.

Protect your encryption key

While it may seem obvious, mistakes that allow unauthorized access to your data can happen. For example, leaving your encryption key in an unencrypted file on your computer poses a significant risk of someone discovering it and causing harm. To mitigate this risk, consider the following alternatives:

  • Keep keys separate from the data.
  • Implement user roles and access restrictions.
  • Rotate keys periodically.

Evaluate data encryption

Effective data encryption involves more than just making data unreadable to unauthorized parties; it also requires efficient resource utilization. If encrypting your data is slow or consumes excessive CPU and memory resources, consider exploring new algorithms or adjusting parameters in your encryption tools to improve efficiency.

Encrypt all sensitive data types

Recent headlines in IT security highlight that many reputable businesses have suffered compromises due to leaving sensitive data unencrypted and accessible to unauthorized parties. Encrypting your data significantly increases the difficulty for malicious actors to exploit vulnerabilities in your systems and compromise your data.

Can encrypted data be hacked?

Encrypted data can be vulnerable to cracking or firmware attacks, but the feasibility and difficulty of such attacks depend on several factors. These include the encryption algorithm’s strength, the encryption key’s length and complexity, and the resources available to the attacker.

Two main types of attacks can be used to compromise encrypted data:

  1. Brute Force Attacks: In a brute force attack, an attacker systematically tries all possible combinations of encryption keys until finding the correct one. The effectiveness of this attack depends on the length and complexity of the encryption key. Longer and more complex keys are harder to crack using brute force. Modern encryption algorithms typically use long keys to resist brute-force attacks.
  2. Cryptanalysis Attacks: Cryptanalysis involves analyzing the encryption algorithm to find vulnerabilities that can be exploited to decrypt data without the encryption key. If a weakness is found, decrypting the data more efficiently than by brute force may be possible. This underscores the importance of using well-vetted and widely accepted encryption algorithms.

In practice, strong encryption algorithms with long and complex keys are extremely difficult to crack using these methods. However, encryption can be compromised due to implementation flaws, key management issues, or advances in computational power.

The security of encrypted data also depends on factors such as the protection of encryption keys, proper implementation of encryption protocols, and safeguarding against side-channel attacks (where information is leaked through unintended channels like power consumption or timing).

As technology evolves, it’s crucial to stay informed about encryption best practices and regularly update encryption methods to avoid potential threats.

Conclusion

Data encryption is a crucial safeguard for sensitive information, ensuring data security. Throughout this article, we have explored the complexities of data encryption, underscoring the importance of safeguarding confidential data.

While implementing data encryption may require advanced technology, the availability of user-friendly solutions has made it more accessible, especially for consumers. Encryption is seamlessly integrated into certain systems, such as iOS, enhancing data protection without user intervention.

For every organization, encryption should be a fundamental component of their security framework, preserving the integrity of business-sensitive data. Data encryption is essential to your cybersecurity arsenal, and prioritizing its adoption is crucial.

If you’re interested in exploring top-tier encryption solutions for your organization, click the button below to chat with our skilled professionals!

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