Everyone's Secret Decoder Ring -Data Encryption
Article by Rick Leinecker, August 18, 2007
We all remember back to the time when we got a special ring that could encode and decode messages. I had a great time giving my brother messages about my sister knowing that she couldn't understand the content without the decoder ring. With today's technology, though, encoding messages, usually known as data encryption, takes on a new meaning. It has become an essential part of keeping data safe and secure.
Data encryption is part of a larger science known as cryptography, simply defined as "the study of message secrecy". The encryption process always starts off with an unencrypted message, technically called plaintext. A process is then applied to the plaintext creating the encrypted message, technically called cyphertext. The ciphertext is what's sent because if it's intercepted, the interceptor won't be able to easily convert from cyphertext back to plaintext. But the legitimate recipient can easily convert from cyphertext back to plaintext because they know the secret key.
Since data encryption attempts to ensure secrecy in communications, it's popularly used by spies, military leaders, and diplomats. It has also had religious applications. For instance, early Christians used cryptography to obfuscate some aspects of their religious writings to avoid the near certain persecution they would have faced had they been less cautious.
The Enigma machine, used in several variants by the German military between the late 1920s and the end of World War II, implemented a complex electro-mechanical polyalphabetic cipher to protect sensitive communications. Breaking the Enigma, and the subsequent large-scale decryption of Enigma traffic, was an important factor contributing to the Allied victory in WWII.
Most Internet traffic is not encrypted. That's because data encryption requires extra processing power on both ends, and most data is doesn't need to be encrypted. But there is a lot of Internet traffic that does need to be encrypted. Any financial, medical, personal, or otherwise secret data should be encrypted. Any time you order something over the Internet and put in your credit card number, that communication is encrypted. Any sensitive national defense communications are encrypted. And of course, financial, medical, and legal entities encrypt all of their Internet communications.
You must be asking "how secure is the encryption?" That's a good question since we rely on the integrity of the encryption. Older encryption techniques have been cracked. The faster computers get, the easier it is to crack the encryption techniques. When these encryption techniques become obsolete, others are developed and become the standards. Security experts have done a good job at staying ahead of the bad guys. We've seen new encryption techniques become standard, even before the old ones are compromised.
I feel safe, and trust my data to the current data encryption methods. While there are lots of bad guys out there trying to figure out a way to hack the encryption, there are a lot more resources that work on keeping it safe such as the US government and financial institutions.
Those are the basics of data encryption.