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What is Encryption? Definition, Types & How It Works

Last updated: Oct 17, 2023

What is Encryption? Definition, Types & How It Works
Cover Image: Illustration of Encryption to Secure Data and Privacy

What is Encryption?

Encryption is a fundamental concept in the realm of data security and privacy. It serves as a formidable shield against unauthorized access, ensuring that sensitive information remains confidential and secure, whether during transmission or while stored in various digital repositories.

The primary objective is to safeguard data from prying eyes and potential threats. When data is encrypted, it is essentially transformed into an unintelligible format that can only be deciphered by those possessing the proper decryption key. 

This ensures that even if data is intercepted or accessed by unauthorized individuals, it remains unreadable and thus retains its confidentiality and integrity.

The process hinges on the utilization of complex cryptographic algorithms. These algorithms operate as intricate mathematical and logical operations that manipulate the original data (referred to as plaintext) and convert it into an encrypted form (referred to as ciphertext). 


How Does Encryption Work?

After understanding the general definition, now you also need to know how does encryption works.

In general, its operation can be adapted to the use of cryptographic algorithms, keys, and the decryption process.

The way it works transforms the original data (plaintext) into an unreadable form (ciphertext). Subsequently, this form is returned to plaintext by authorized parties.

A more detailed explanation of each process is explained in the following:

1. Algorithm

Encryption is performed using cryptographic algorithms, which consist of a series of complex mathematical and logical instructions.

These algorithms will transform the original data into ciphertext using complex calculations.

Generally, cryptographic algorithm processes are divided into two categories: symmetric and asymmetric algorithms.

Symmetric algorithms have the same encryption and decryption keys, while asymmetric algorithms use two different keys – one for encryption and one for decryption.

2. Key

These keys are values used by the algorithm to transform plaintext into ciphertext. The presence of these keys is vital because, without them, ciphertext would be very difficult to decipher and return to plaintext. Typically, these keys are in the form of random numbers or complex strings of characters.

3. Decryption

The decryption process is the opposite of the algorithm process. This concept applies when the recipient obtains the ciphertext and has the correct decryption key.

If this is the case, they can use it to transform the ciphertext back into readable plaintext. In the process, this action involves mathematical and logical operations to reverse the operation.


The Advantage of Encryption

In addition to understanding how does encryption work, it's also essential to learn about its benefits in safeguarding data and information security. Here is the complete review!

1. Confidentiality

One of the paramount benefits lies in its ability to safeguard the confidentiality of data, thereby ensuring that sensitive information remains shielded from prying eyes and unauthorized access.

When data is subjected to end-to-end encryption, it undergoes a transformation that renders it into an indecipherable code, commonly known as ciphertext. 

Hence, only those individuals or entities equipped with the precise key possess the capability to unlock and decrypt this ciphertext.

2. Authentication

In some end-to-end encryption methods, the presence of these keys can be used to prove the identity of an individual or organization.

This step can prevent man-in-the-middle attacks, where attackers attempt to impersonate authorized parties.

3. Integrity

Through this process, you can ensure that data within it is not altered or manipulated by unauthorized parties during storage. If there are sudden changes to the data in transit, for instance, it will render the data unreadable.

4. Nonrepudiation

The concept of nonrepudiation stands as a pivotal and often overlooked advantage. It functions as an irrefutable testament to the authenticity and accountability of a sender in the realm of digital communication and transactions. 

In essence, nonrepudiation ensures that the sender cannot later disavow their involvement in the dispatch of a message or the execution of a transaction. 


Encryption Types

Once you know "what is encryption", you also need to know the various types used to secure data and information. Here are some types of it you need to know. 

1. MD2

MD2 Type is in the form of a cryptographic hash algorithm which is used to produce a hash value from input data.

While it was previously widely used on 8-bit computers, MD2 security was considered vulnerable to attacks. Therefore, this type is no longer used in modern security applications.

2. MD4

This type has also been considered obsolete and insecure. MD4 (Message Digest Algorithm 4) takes the form of developing the MD2 cryptographic hash algorithm with a bit length of 128 bits. 

Additionally, MD4 is implemented to calculate results on Microsoft Windows Vista, XP, and NT.

Unfortunately, this type is no longer used in modern security applications because it is too vulnerable to cyber attacks.

3. MD5

MD5 (Message Digest Algorithm 5) is an update to the hash algorithm from MD4 which is considered less secure.

Even so, MD5 is still considered vulnerable to collision attacks. This attack is commonly used by hackers to create two different inputs to produce the same hash.

4. SHA

SHA (Secure Hash Algorithm) is a series of cryptographic hash algorithms developed by the NSA to maintain data security. SHA can protect the data by providing an unreadable hash.

The most commonly used examples of SHA are SHA-256 and SHA-512. Both types are capable of producing 256-bit and 512-bit hash values.

5. RC4

RC4 is the stream algorithm that is widely used in various protocols and applications, including WEP in Wi-Fi networks.

However, RC4 has been deemed unsafe to use because it has been proven to be vulnerable and has many security holes.

6. Base64 

In general, Base64 works by converting binary data into ASCII (American Standard Code for Information) text form. This text is useful for sending binary data over protocols that only support text.

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