The modern world runs on information. We exchange data constantly, even if we don't know it's happening. When you open your web browser and go to any web site, you're exchanging information with another computer somewhere in the world. Whether you're reading up on the latest news, watching an endless assortment of cat videos, or researching statistics for a business proposal, chances are you will be involved in some form of information exchange during your daily activities.
But what happens when you want to keep the information you send or receive a secret? The internet is full of traps and spies. Malware is everywhere, and you can never know when someone is collecting your data without your knowledge. That's where data encryption comes in handy.
The goal of encryption is to make any message or information impossible to understand or read without permission. Perfect encryption is (currently) impossible. What I mean by that is there is no way to encrypt data so that it can’t be read by someone who isn’t authorized to do so. There are an unlimited number of ways to encrypt data, but some methods are significantly more effective at preventing unauthorized data disclosure than others.
Every encryption system, however, has a few things in common. First, there’s the data. If you don’t have something you want to keep private or secret, there’s no reason to encrypt your data, so no need for encryption. But since we live in a world where secrecy and privacy are occasionally necessary and desirable, we are going to have stuff we want to encrypt. Credit card numbers, social security numbers, birth dates, and things like that, for instance, need to be encrypted to prevent people from misusing them. We call this data “Clear-text” because it’s clear what the text says.
The next part is the “encryption algorithm”. Encryption is based very heavily in math, so we have to borrow some mathematical terminology here. In math, an algorithm is all the steps required to reach a conclusion. The algorithm for 1+1 is identified by the + sign, which tells use the step we need to take to get the correct answer to the problem, which is to add the values together. Encryption algorithms can be as simple as adding numbers or so complicated that they require a library of books to explain. The more complicated the algorithm, the more difficult it is (in theory) to “crack” the encryption and expose the original clear-text.
Encryption algorithms also require some value to be added along with the clear-text to generate encrypted data. The extra value is called an encryption “key”. The encryption key has two purposes. First, it allows the encryption algorithm to produce a (theoretically) unique value from the clear-text. Second, it allows people who have permission to read the encrypted data to do so, since knowing what the key is will allow us to decrypt, or reveal, the clear-text (more on this in a bit).
These three pieces put together are used to create a unique “Cipher-text” that will appear to be just gobbledygook to casual inspection. The cipher-text can be given to anyone and whatever it represents will be unknown until the data is “decrypted”. The process we go through to do this is fairly simple. We take the clear-text and the key, enter them as input in the encryption algorithm, and after the whole algorithm is completed with those values, we get a cipher-text. The below image shows this:
Every encryption algorithm requires the ability to “reverse” or “decrypt” the data, so they all have a different decryption algorithm. For instance, in order to get back to the original value of 1 after adding 1 to it to get 2, you would have to reverse that process by subtracting 1. In this case, we know what input (1) and algorithm (adding) was used to reach the value, so reversing it is easy. We just subtract whatever number we need to get back to the original value (1 in this case). In general, decryption algorithms will take the key and cipher-text as input to the algorithm. Once everything in the algorithm is done, it should result in the original clear-text, as shown below:
Two early examples of encryption come to us from Greek and Roman history. The Skytale was a fairly ingenious encryption tool that used a wooden block of varying size and shape as its key. The clear-text was written (or burned) on a strip of leather that was wrapped around the key on a single side of the key, which was usually hexagonal. The person who was supposed to receive the message had a key of similar shape and size. Wrapping the leather strip around the other key would allow the recipient to receive the message. Using the above terminology, the Clear-text is the message, the key is the block of wood, and the encryption algorithm is wrapping a strip of leather around the key and writing your message along with some fake gobbledygook on all the other sides. Unwrapping the leather from the block gives a cipher-text. Decryption is just wrapping the strip around a similarly shaped and sized block, then look at all sides to see which one makes sense.
One of the more famous encryption algorithms is called the “Caesar Cipher” because it was developed by Julius Caesar during his military conquests to keep his enemies from intercepting his plans. You’ve probably used this algorithm before without knowing it if you ever enjoyed passing notes to friends in school and wanted to keep the other kids (or the teacher) from knowing what the message said if they “intercepted” it.
The Caesar Cipher works well for quick, easy encryption. All you do is pick a number between 1 and 26 (or the number of letters in whatever language you’re using). When writing the message, you replace each letter with whatever letter whose space in the alphabet is equal to the number you chose above or below in the alphabet. For instance, “acbrownit” is “bdcspxmju” in a +1 Caesar Cypher. Decrypting the message is a simple matter of reversing that. For a Caesar Cypher, the key is whatever number you pick, the clear-text is the message you want to send, the algorithm is to add the key to the clear-text’s letters, outputting cipher-text.
For any encryption algorithm to function properly as a way to send messages, you must have a way to ensure that the recipient of the message has the correct key to decrypt the message. Without a key, the recipient will be forced to “crack” the encryption to read the message. So you need to be able to provide that key to the recipient. The process of ensuring that both the sender and recipient have the keys to encrypt and decrypt the message (respectively), a “key exchange” must occur. This is often as simple as telling your friend what number to use with your Caesar cipher.
But what do you do if you need to exchange keys in a public place, surrounded by prying eyes (like, for instance, the Internet)? It becomes much more difficult to exchange keys when needed if there is significant distance between the sender and recipient, which means that the biggest weakness in any encryption standard is making sure that the recipient has the key they need to decrypt the message. If the key can be intercepted easily, the encryption system will fail.
The exchange method used will usually depend on they type of key required for decryption. For instance, in World War II, the German military developed a mechanical encryption device called “Enigma” that was essentially a typewriter, but it changed the letters used when typing out a message with a mechanical series of gears and levels. If you pushed the I button on the keyboard, depending on the key used it would type a J or a P (or whatever). The keys were written down in a large notebook that was given directly to military commanders before they departed on their missions, and the index location of the key assigned to the message was set on the machine itself to encrypt and decrypt messages. The process of creating that key book and handing it to the commander was a key exchange. It was kept secure by ensuring that the only people who had the notebook of keys were people that were allowed to have them. Commanders were ordered to destroy their Enigma machines and accompanying notebooks if capture was likely. The Allies in the war were able to capture some of these machines eventually, which allowed a lot of incredibly smart people a chance to examine them and learn the algorithm used to encrypt data, which ultimately resulted in the Enigma machines becoming useless, once weaknesses were found and exploited.
Modern encryption systems utilize a number of different methods for exchanging keys. For example, there are VPN tunnels that utilize "hardware" keys. In these solutions, the networks on each side of the tunnel have a device that is connected to another over the internet through a VPN. Before a connection between each side can be established, a small electronic dongle (about the size of a flash drive) has to be plugged in on each side. The dongle contains the key used to encrypt and decrypt data. The key exchange in this scenario involves having an authorized individual take a key to each site and plug it in. This is a very low-tech kind of key exchange, but is extremely secure because, as long as the individual carrying the keys is trustworthy, we can be sure that no one else has a copy of the key.
There are many other kinds of key exchanges that can occur in an encryption system, but most people don't realize when a key exchange is even happening on the Internet. Whenever you visit an encrypted website, there are actually two different kinds of key exchange that have to happen before the website is presented. Without the technology to perform those exchanges, entering your credit card to purchase the latest gadget online would be a much more complicated and annoying process.
Encryption techniques have come a long way since the early days of leather straps around wooden blocks. Encryption is also used in more ways, by more people, and for more purposes than you can imagine. Despite the improvements and technological developments that have come along, there is still no such thing as a perfect, unbreakable encryption technique. It's always possible to decrypt data without permission. All we can do is ensure that the time it takes to "crack" the encryption is prohibitive. AES encryption, for example, can take as long as the universe has existed to crack using brute force techniques (based on the average computer's processing power). The future, though, will require better, more ingenious encryption systems. Why? Because, theoretically, a sufficiently powerful quantum computer (which doesn't exist yet) can crack even the strongest encryption in almost no time at all. Rest assured, however, that someone (or a group of someones) will develop a better system that will be much more difficult for quantum computers to crack.
Encryption is a part of our daily lives, whether we realize it or not. Understanding how it works is becoming more important as time goes on and the need to protect ourselves from prying eyes increases. Hopefully, after reading this article, you can see why encryption is important and what it really does for everyone.
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