Modern businesses generate, exchange, and store massive amounts of sensitive data managed in the cloud or on connected servers, most of which they want to keep confidential and secure. Data encryption is a widely used and highly effective security method to keep all data secure.
What is Data Encryption?
Data encryption is the basic building block in cybersecurity. It involves scrambling text or data into an uninterpretable, unreadable, encoded format called ciphertext. Basically, this means taking readable information and transforming it so that it appears totally random. Users can only read or process encrypted data after it has been decrypted using a secret key. The more complex the cryptographic key, the more secure the encryption (more on this later).
How Data Encryption is Used
Businesses typically rely on enterprise-grade data encryption methods to encrypt their data. Off-the-shelf software allows you to start securing your business data right away without worrying about the implementation details.
Data encryption technologies can be used to protect various types of data, including but not limited to:
- Data at rest and in transit
- Data stored on in-office systems or employee work devices
- Data stored on on-premises data centers or third-party cloud environments
- Data that relates to business assets, research, intellectual property, and customers
How Does Data Encryption Work?
As mentioned above, encryption algorithms use cryptographic keys to modify data and make it uninterpretable to others. Cryptographic keys dictate the logic of how the original data is encrypted and decrypted.
To help you better understand how data encryption methods work, let’s consider the Caesar cipher – one of the simplest encryption algorithms out there. Its most known use case is text encryption.
The Caesar cipher works by taking each letter in the original message (the plaintext) and replacing it with a letter that’s a certain distance away from it in the alphabet. That distance can be arbitrary; for example, if you chose to shift the letters by 2 positions to the right, the letter A would become the letter C, B would become D, and so on. In the Caesar cipher, the distance of the shift (e.g., 2) is the cryptographic key.
Here’s a really simple example of a Caesar shift by 2 to the right.
Plaintext: The message has been delivered.
Ciphertext: Vjg oguucig jcu dggp fgnkxgtgf.
To decrypt the message, you would need to shift the ciphertext by 2 positions to the left.
Mathematically, the Caesar cipher encrypts English plaintext using the following function:
While decryption is done like this:
The Caesar cipher isn’t even remotely secure by today’s standards, but it’s great for demonstrating how encryption works.
Business-grade encryption algorithms work similarly – they use mathematical functions to encrypt and decrypt data. But these functions are much more complex and use much longer encryption keys (that can be very difficult to guess), leverage pseudo-random numbers, and can rearrange different portions of data.
Benefits of Data Encryption
Security Across Devices
Businesses can apply data encryption technologies across their entire infrastructure, starting from on-premises hardware – like servers – and ending with employees’ personal devices. This ensures total protection of corporate data while at rest, no matter where it’s located.
Secure Data Transfer and Communications
Encryption can protect your data at rest and while in transit. So even if hackers do manage to intercept confidential data while it’s being sent from one device to another, encryption can make that data uninterpretable to them.
Protection of Lost or Stolen Devices
Employees can be quite careless with their work devices, even often bringing them along with them on vacation. Interns and C-level employees can be especially susceptible to this, with having lost their device on vacation, according to a survey by Snow Software. While human error might be difficult to prevent, encryption can protect data on devices that have gone missing.
Today, people are more worried about their online data and privacy than ever before. Among Americans, nearly 72% are “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about their online privacy.
Online users cannot control where their data is used and stored. They can’t even tell if their personal data is actually secure in the hands of tech companies. By encrypting the data of your customers even when not legally required to do so, you can increase their level of trust in your business.
3 Main Reasons Why We Need Data Encryption
Data encryption technology lets us keep our private data confidential and secure from anyone who might want to exploit it for their own gain or make use of it for other nefarious purposes. The kinds of private data we can protect through encryption include passwords, health and financial information, or trade secrets and intellectual property.
Cyber-attacks and data breaches have become commonplace and represent an ongoing risk for every business. Despite their best efforts to secure their data, many companies still fall victim to sophisticated attacks and end up losing sensitive information. If data is encrypted before it’s stolen, the risk of it being accessed and exploited is less likely.
Data Protection Regulations
Data encryption methods ensure that organizations stay compliant with the relevant regulatory standards and laws that apply to them. These differ from industry to industry. For example, in healthcare, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires all providers to encrypt sensitive patient data. Retail businesses have to abide by the Fair Credit Practices Act (FCPA) and other consumer protection rules. Higher education institutions are bound by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which is designed to ensure that student records remain confidential.
Types of Data Encryption
The two most common data encryption methods are public key (also known as asymmetric) encryption and private key (or symmetric) encryption.
Symmetric Encryption (Private Key Encryption)
In symmetric encryption, only one secret symmetric key is used to encrypt the plaintext and decrypt the cipher text. It provides a way to encrypt information quickly, so it’s ideal for use cases where encryption/decryption speed and latency are important. Additionally, symmetric encryption is great for encrypting huge volumes of data simultaneously.
On the other hand, symmetric keys are considered less secure than asymmetric keys. If you use the same symmetric key across different devices and types of data, your entire network can be compromised if the key is stolen or leaked.
Employees and network devices need to have direct access to the symmetric key to be able to encrypt data. This means that you have to somehow send the symmetric key to the relevant parties, which means that there is a risk of the key being stolen in transit.
Asymmetric Encryption (Public Key Encryption)
Asymmetric encryption, also known as Public Key Cryptography, makes use of two separate cryptographic asymmetric keys to encrypt and decrypt data. These two keys are referred to as a “public key” and a “private key.”
The private and public keys are mathematically linked with each other. If someone wanted to send a protected message to you, they would need to use your public key to encrypt it. And after you receive the message, you would need to use your private key to decrypt it.
Because the public key is visible to others, anyone can send you an encrypted message without exchanging any keys with you. This is one of the reasons why asymmetric encryption is considered more secure than symmetric encryption.
With that said, asymmetric encryption is typically slower than symmetric encryption. Because of this, it usually isn’t used to directly encrypt data in bulk. Instead, whenever speed is a concern, you can use asymmetric encryption to encrypt and securely transfer symmetric encryption keys and then use them to encrypt your data. And to make sure that the keys are coming from a trusted source, asymmetric encryption can also be used to generate digital certificates that can authenticate the communication parties.
Another notable issue with asymmetric encryption is that it’s believed to be vulnerable to future attacks from quantum computers. Quantum computers will be powerful enough to simply derive private keys from their associated public keys.
For now, public-private key pairs are secure because classical computers cannot quickly find the link between the keys in any feasible timespan. Quantum computers, however, will be able to do so in seconds, which puts classical public-key encryption in grave danger.
Most Common Data Encryption Technologies
There are numerous data encryption technologies to choose from, depending on the use case, but the ones most frequently used are:
Triple DES (3DES) runs the DES algorithm, an outdated standard, three times. As it does this, it increases the DES key size of 56-bits to 168-bits, so it’s more difficult to compromise. That said, it does consume significant system resources.
RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman), one of the first public-key algorithms, is named after three computer scientists who invented it to encrypt data in transit in the 70s. RSA uses one-way asymmetric encryption. It’s popular as it has a long key length and can be used by browsers to create secure connections over non-secure networks.
Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC)
ECC was developed as a follow-on improvement to RSA and is used by agencies such as the NSA. Its key lengths are shorter, and it provides better security. ECC is a powerful, fast form of asymmetric data encryption used as part of the SSL/TLS protocol.
The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
AES was established as the US Government standard for data encryption built for easy implementation in both hardware and software. It’s a symmetric-key algorithm and uses block cipher methods.
In Transit Versus at Rest Encryption
It’s essential that sensitive data remains encrypted at all times, but how you do this will depend on its state. Data exists in two primary states: in transit or at rest.
Let’s explore these two types of data states in more detail and how to go about encrypting them:
Data Encryption in Transit
Data is considered to be in transit if it’s moving between devices such as within a private company network or over the Internet. While data is being transferred, it’s more susceptible to being interfered with. Encrypting data during transfer, referred to as end-to-end encryption, ensures that even if the data is intercepted, its privacy is protected.
Data Encryption at Rest
Data is considered to be in a state of rest when it’s residing on a server or storage device and isn’t being used or transmitted. Data at rest is generally less susceptible to compromise than it is when it’s in transit. That’s because it’s typically protected by security protocols and infrastructure. But there are exceptions. Data at rest often contains more valuable information, which makes it an attractive target for cybercriminals. By encrypting data at rest, you can minimize the risk of a data breach or compromise caused by inadvertent password sharing or the loss or theft of mobile devices.
Data Encryption Solutions
If you’re looking to strengthen your data protection measures, you’ll want to consider enterprise-grade data encryption software. At Quantropi, we believe the best data encryption solutions must have the following features and capabilities:
The right data encryption solution should integrate seamlessly into your existing infrastructure. If initial deployment is a chore, you probably won’t have a good time using and adapting the software to your needs over the long term.
Not only should your data encryption solution be easy to deploy, but it should also be highly scalable. Scalability will simplify the extension of encryption to new devices and forms of data as your business expands. Good scalability can serve as the enabler of stable and secure business growth.
Your data encryption software should be able to encrypt data across a wide range of platforms and operating systems. It should support platforms such as Linux, Microsoft Windows, Android, and iOS. Your encryption solution should also be compatible with the hardware and software tools you use in your workflows.
Protection at Rest and in Transit
Most solutions that are worth your attention can encrypt data both at rest and in transit, whether it’s in a data center or being transmitted over the internet. You shouldn’t settle for anything else if you want comprehensive protection.
Last but not least, your data encryption software should facilitate compliance with relevant regulations. Among other things, you should be able to monitor and enforce compliance at the workplace. Additionally, your data encryption solution should provide you with proof of encryption, which will help you show compliance in the event of an audit.
Quantropi – the Future of Quantum-grade Data Encryption
Steal now and crack later is real. Bad actors are harvesting encrypted data today to decrypt later with quantum computers. And in the not-too-distant future, these same quantum computers will break existing cryptographic defences. Enter Quantropi.
Quantropi offers the only end-to-end platform with all 3 prerequisites for cryptographic integrity: Trust, Uncertainty, and Entropy (we call it TrUE). The company’s patented “TrUE” technologies establish Trust between any two parties via quantum-secure asymmetric MASQ™ encryption; provide Uncertainty to attackers, rendering data uninterpretable forever, with QEEP™ symmetric encryption; and Entropy as a Service (EaaS) with SEQUR™— ultra-random key generation & distribution that enable secure data communications. All TrUE technologies are accessible via the company’s flagship QiSpace™ platform.
Contact us to learn more about Quantropi’s suite of capabilities – designed for today’s threats and tomorrow’s quantum attacks.