What Is Encryption and How Does It Work?
We live in a world where computers and the internet are nearly everywhere. With that comes the fact that individuals and companies are facing a rapidly increasing online threat: cybercrime.
The market is bigger than ever before, making the internet the new (and profitable) frontier for (cyber) criminals. That means that protecting our digital presence is of utmost importance, and encryption is an important security measure.
For example, email software, online banking, webshops, hotel websites and news websites are just a few examples of the vast quantity of platforms that use encryption to protect data.
The method of protecting information by encrypting it isn’t a recent solution. The Greeks and Egyptians used cryptography thousands of years ago to protect important messages from unwanted eyes.
That being said, the techniques and methods are very different and more advanced in today’s digital world in order to protect and secure our data.
Encryption is used to make sure that important data can’t be stolen or abused for fraudulent activities by hackers.
Before we delve into how encryption works, let’s start by first looking at the history of encryption.
History of Encryption
Before most people could even write or read, encryption schemes had already been developed to convert messages and information into an unreadable piece of text.
The word encryption comes from “kryptos.” The Greeks used “krypto” to describe something that was hidden or secret.
The first documented examples of written cryptography date back to 1900 B.C., when Egyptians used simple encryption methods, such as non-standard hieroglyphs, in inscriptions.
In 700 B.C., the Spartans wrote important messages on leather, which was wrapped around sticks. A message could only be read by someone who had a stick of the exact same diameter. Without knowing the exact diameter size, a person wouldn’t be able to decipher (convert code into written text) the message.
Later, Hebrew scribes developed an encryption model called “ATBASH.” This type of encryption used a reversed-alphabet simple substitution code. That means that an “A” becomes a “Z,” “B” becomes a “Y,” etc.
For example, “Hello” would be encoded as “Svool.”
In the time of Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.), the Romans used a similar substitution. Instead of reversing the alphabet, the Romans used a pre-agreed shift of the letters - only the person who knew about the agreed shift of letters could decipher the message.
For example, if the agreed shift was 5, then the sentence “This is super interesting!” would be encrypted into “YMNX NX XZUJW NSYJWJXYNSL!”
Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a rapid development of encryption models using polyalphabetic substitution (multiple substitution alphabets used to minimize the success of decryption).
Then, another major development in encryption took place around 1933 to 1945, when German cryptologists created the world-famous Enigma machine.
Up to this period, all encryption models were designed using a symmetric key - I’ll explain this later in the article.
In 1976, IBM created an encryption model that was later decided to be the U.S. Data Encryption Standard (DES). It had achieved worldwide acceptance largely because it had withstood 20 years of attacks. It was later replaced by AES encryption, which will be discussed later.
In the same year, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman published “New Directions in Cryptography.” They laid the groundwork to solve one of the core fundamental issues (at the time) of encryption schemes: how to distribute the encryption key to the intended person(s) in a safe and secure way.
New Directions in Cryptography was considered a breakthrough and triggered an era of new cryptography schemes, using a public key with asymmetric algorithms and new authentication methods - which I will explain in-depth in the asymmetric section of “Types of Key Algorithms.”
What Is Encryption, Exactly?
Encryption is a modern variant of ancient cryptography schemes. It’s based on a complex algorithm called a “cipher.”
Its purpose is to hide important information from others by turning plaintext data into a series of random ciphertext, which makes it impossible to read the plaintext without decoding the data with a special decryption key.
In cryptography, plaintext (unencrypted information) is the data that presents itself in readable material, e.g., that email you wrote to your boss.
The opposite of plaintext is called ciphertext. Ciphertext (encrypted information) is that data that contains a form of the original and encrypted plaintext, but it’s unreadable for humans and computers.
Simply put, encryption is the process of converting sensitive data or information into unintelligible data.
Encryption keys are designed to be absolutely one-of-a-kind, using a set of different algorithms. The encryption key is used to encode or decode data.
That basically means that an encryption key is able to mix up the data into unreadable characters, and it can revert those unreadable characters back into plaintext as well.
For example, when I encrypt a set of data and create a unique key to lock my data, I can share the encrypted data with my friends or colleagues. In order to view the data, all they need is the encryption key that I have.
One unique key used to both encrypt and decrypt data only applies to symmetric encryption, while asymmetric encryption works differently, which I’ll discuss later.
By providing them with the key, they’re allowed access to the data. Another term for this process is “public-key cryptography.”
Machine cryptography - or rotor machine - became known to the majority of the public during WWII, when the Germans used the Enigma code (machine) to encrypt all of their communications.
Machine cryptography consists of an electro-mechanical system which is used to encrypt and decrypt secret information.
The Germans encrypted all of their communication channels, from attack coordination and strategy planning to reporting. It became one of Great Britain’s most important and secret tasks to decrypt the Enigma machine in order to know what the Germans were planning to do.
British mathematician Alan Turing set out - amongst others in a group of Britain’s greatest mathematicians - to decrypt the Enigma code, in a then-secret location at Bletchley Park in England.
At Bletchley Park, Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman managed to build the code-breaking machine dubbed “Colossus.”
Colossus became the first programmable digital computer that could generate unique and strong encryption and decryption keys, which was a massive turning point in both WWII and the development of encryption and decryption.
What Is the Encryption Algorithm Used For?
As shown in the history section, encryption schemes were used by important people in wartime or for political reasons.
Although encryption was mainly used by governments and large corporations before the 1970s, the groundbreaking introduction of Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman’s “New Directions in Cryptography” changed that in 1976.
Their work led to the introduction of the RSA algorithm on personal computers. Eventually, encryption became widely implemented in web browsers and data servers to protect data.
In today’s world, encryption is universally used to protect data in, for example, e-commerce, online payment and banking, email software, cryptocurrency, customer data storage and much more.
Additionally, SIM cards, top-up boxes and Wi-Fi modems all employ encryption algorithm protocols to encrypt and protect sensitive data.
Encryption also protects data that’s being communicated between two parties - for example, the credit card details of a customer when they’re making an online purchase.
While the data can still be intercepted, it would be unintelligible and therefore useless to spies or hackers.
All sorts of devices across a wide variety of different networks encrypt communication in transit. Encryption is not only used for internet transits, but also ATM transactions or mobile phone calls.
Encryption algorithms protect all data being transmitted.
Examples of a Pre-Modern Encrypted Message
As mentioned previously, there are simple encryption schemes and then there are highly-advanced ciphers. Remember the ATBASH or Roman encryption scheme? An example of that would look like the following.
As you can see in the image above, I selected “Key:2,” which means that “A” will be “C” and so forth.
If I change the settings, I can also include numbers. If I change the “Key” value, it increases in complexity.
If you want to test it out yourself, visit the Crypto Corner website.
Example of a Modern-Day Encrypted Message
I haven’t introduced all the concepts of modern-day encryption methods yet, but I included this example to give you an idea of what I’ll be talking about later.
Let’s take a look at a very advanced form of encryption. This is an example of current encryption methods, which will be fully explained in the "Types of Key Algorithms" section.
For this example, I’ll use the “Pretty Good Privacy” (PGP) encryption program.
So, imagine you used an email provider with encryption security protection. Generally, an email would only show plaintext, but if you don’t have the decryption key to an encrypted email, it could look like the following.
Step #1: Create a private and public key.
Step #2: Click on “Generate PGP Keys."
The result could be something like the image below.
Step #3: Visit the encryption page.
Step #4: Then, write an example email message and click “Encrypt Message.”
For full effect, here's a copy of the final sequence of ciphertext (encrypted email):
As you can see, the plaintext email message that I wrote suddenly changed into a piece of unintelligible text. This makes no sense at all and is useless for anyone who intercepts my email message (for those who don’t have the public encryption key).
If you want to test it out yourself, visit the iGolder website (click on “PGP Key Generator” first).
What Does “Encryption Algorithm” Mean?
In its most basic form, the encryption program runs a formula to turn your data (plaintext) into ciphertext - secret and unreadable data.
This process works inversely as well. So, ciphertext can be reverted into plaintext (which you can read).
In the first example in the previous section, there was only one calculation carried out, which moved each letter of the alphabet forward by 2.
The second encryption example shown has a much higher number of bits, which means there’s an incredible number of potential calculation patterns.
By transforming data or plaintext into ciphertext, the unwanted eyes of hackers or others would most likely be unable to read the information.
Every single encryption algorithm makes use of a string of bits - widely known as the “key” - to execute the calculations. The longer the encryption key (the more bits), the more possible calculation patterns can be created, and the harder it will be to decrypt the ciphertext without a key.
The majority of the encryption algorithms use the “block cipher method.” This method applies a random algorithm in combination with a symmetric key to encrypt a block of text.
This method encrypts the fixed blocks of input, which generally range from 64 to 128 or 256 bits in length.A less-popular and occasionally-used method is the “stream method.” This method applies to plaintext digits that are combined with a pseudorandom cipher digit stream - or “keystream.” The algorithm applies to each binary digit in a data stream, one bit per input.
How Does the Encryption Work & What Is the Role of the Key?
The encryption/decryption key is comparable with a normal password - the one you use for your email, for example. The key is an essential part of the process of encoding and decoding data.
Typically, a key is a random binary or an actual passphrase. The key “tells” the algorithm what patterns it must follow in order to convert plaintext into ciphertext (and the other way around).
It almost goes without saying, but the key is a fundamental part of the protection of the privacy of information, a message or a piece of data. The encryption and decryption process can only be initiated by using the key.
Due to the fact that algorithms are publicly available and can be accessed by anyone, once a hacker gets a hold of the encryption key, the encrypted data can easily be decrypted to plaintext.
The hacker can either crack the random binary or passphrase of the key, or the hacker could hack into your system and obtain the key by stealing it from you.
Therefore, it’s incredibly important to create a very strong combination of different letters (lowercase and uppercase), numbers and special characters. Or, even better, regularly change the combination of the key.
Usually, a larger key size (longer key) means that the complexity is greater. So, the security is better. When you create a new key size for a specific set of data, it’s best to use a virtual keyboard when entering the letters, numbers and special characters.
A virtual keyboard protects you against potentially-installed keyloggers (malware) in your system, which register everything you do on your PC. By using a virtual keyboard, you’re not actually using your tangible keyboard, but instead, you’re clicking on a secondary keyboard on your screen (which can’t be logged by a keylogger because it’s all visual).
For example, chat services likes Telegram and WhatsApp encrypt every message that the user sends. The software is developed in such a way that every plaintext message is converted into ciphertext and can only be decrypted - viewed in plaintext - by the recipient.
Furthermore, digital encryption is highly complex and considered to be significantly hard to crack.
In order to add another layer of complexity (and security) to smartphone encryption, every time a pair of smartphones establishes a communication channel, an additional shell of protection is built around that channel. The shell is basically a new set of algorithms establishing a secure connection.
Many security- and privacy-focused email providers and chat services protect the data of their users by implementing end-to-end encryption. Similar to the other types of encryption, it mixes up the messages into ciphertext.
While other encryption methods work in pairs - one key encrypts the data, while the other key can be used and distributed to other parties to decrypt the data - end-to-end encryption works differently.
End-to-end encryption basically means that only the one who sends the message and the one who receives it can read it.
Simply put, when you send an email using end-to-end encryption security, not even the email service provider can read your message because it’s already encrypted on their server.
Types of Key Algorithms
A fundamental pillar to establish a secure communication is based on the significance of the key.
There are two methods of encryption:
Symmetric Key Algorithms: Symmetric algorithms use similar or exactly the same encryption keys for both the encryption of plaintext and the decryption of ciphertext.
Asymmetric Key Algorithms: Asymmetric algorithms use different (unique) keys for the encryption of plaintext and the decryption of ciphertext.
The asymmetric algorithm method is often referred to as “Public-key Cryptography.”
While I’ve touched on this briefly earlier in the article, I will provide a more detailed description below.
Symmetric Key Algorithms
Symmetric algorithms use the exact same key for encrypting plaintext and decrypting ciphertext. Symmetric key algorithms are often established like the following example:
When two parties want to communicate certain data or information in a secure and secret manner, the two parties can exchange the passphrase of the key before sharing the data. This could, for example, be done over the phone or a face-to-face meeting.
Then, the two parties agree that a specific key (password) will be used to secure all the information and messages exchanged in the future.
This type of encryption is easy to use for all parties involved because they only need to exchange the encryption and decryption key once. From then onward, all the communication is secure.
In contrast, asymmetric algorithms require a new key for every new instance of communication between two parties.
Additionally, symmetric key algorithms are faster than asymmetric ones, because there’s only one key. Asymmetric algorithms use a pair of keys that are mathematically connected - increasing the mathematical complexity.
A major disadvantage of symmetric key algorithms is that if someone who’s not authorized to view the data or information is able to obtain the key, that person can easily decrypt the intercepted message that was sent between the two parties.
If you have a lot of different communication channels with different parties, it can be challenging to manage every unique key that belongs to a certain person you’re in communication with.
Asymmetric Key Algorithms
In contrast to the single key symmetric algorithms, asymmetric key algorithms use a pair of two keys in order to execute the algorithm.
One key is used for the encryption of plaintext and the other key is used for the decryption of ciphertext.
The two keys are a combination of letters, numbers and special characters that create randomly-generated strings.
The asymmetric encryption key uses a private key and a public key. That means that the one sending a message can encrypt it with a private key that was not shared with the receiving party. Instead, the public key is available for anyone to use - however, it only provides access to a limited piece of information.
Let me explain that further.
Asymmetric encryption establishes an authentication. During the authentication process, the function of the public key is to verify that the message is sent by the private key pair holder. In return, only the paired private key holder can decrypt the message encrypted with the public paired key.
For example, imagine that the email conversations between my friends and I are encrypted. But, unfortunately, my friend is careless with their key and a hacker obtains their private key.
If that hacker was able to intercept all my email data, he would now be able to read the messages between careless friend and me. But, the compromised private key would not provide access to any other messages I’ve sent.
The essential advantage here is that my other data would be safe and secure because the other people I’ve sent messages to provided me with different keys.
The private key is created based on highly-complex mathematical calculations, which is linked to the public key pair. Simply put, if a message or set of data is encrypted with a public key, only its private key pair can decrypt it - and vice versa.
The biggest advantage of using asymmetric key algorithms is that you never need to share or send your encryption key or passphrase over an insecure channel. So, that drastically reduces the possibility of getting hacked.
The public key can be shared with anyone without compromising security, since any person can encrypt a message using the receiver’s public key. But, the encrypted message can only be decrypted to plaintext by the private key holder.
Asymmetric key algorithms have three disadvantages:
How Does Encryption Secure Online Communication?
The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol is an encryption method that creates a secure connection between a web server and your browser.
That means that the data you’re transmitting to the web server is protected from unwanted snoops. You can recognize a secure web server by checking for the following in your search bar:
This is how the process works:
The web server provides your web browser its certificate with its public key. Then, the browser checks whether the certificate was issued by a Certificate Authority (a trusted provider of SSL protection).
Your browser then uses this public key to encrypt the data you are sending to the web server.
In order to read the encrypted data, the web server uses its private key to decrypt the ciphertext.
In other words, only the web server is able to read your data, because only the web server has the private key to decrypt your data. This process makes sure that your data is protected from hackers.
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
The Advanced Encryption Standard is a symmetric block cipher and a subset of the Rijndael cipher.
This method of symmetric encryption was chosen by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology as the top security encryption standard. The U.S. government therefore adopted the AES, which is now used on a worldwide scale to protect classified information and encrypt sensitive data in software and hardware.
How Does AES Encryption Work?
The AES uses three different block ciphers:
Every individual block cipher is able to encrypt and decrypt data in a fixed block size of 128-bits. The key size is 128, 192 or 256-bits respectively.
The difference between the Rijndael cipher and the AES cipher is that the Rijndael cipher accepted additional block and key sizes, but the AES cipher did not implement those functions.
What Is the Meaning of Block Size?
Every algorithm processes block ciphers in a particular size.
In other words, the algorithm “breaks” the data or plaintext into blocks and processes the calculations block by block.
Every block contains a fixed size of bits: for example (as shown above), 128, 192 or 256-bits. The complete string of input text will be split into the exact same-sized blocks while the algorithm is processing the encryption or decryption of the data.
Each block of plaintext has a corresponding block of ciphertext for a specific key (and vice versa).
What Is the Meaning of Key Size?
The key size stands for the number of bits in the key. For the AES, the key size is directly linked to the strength of the algorithm. The higher the number of bits, the stronger its security.
So, 256-bits provides extra security in comparison to 128-bits.
Short keys can be vulnerable to brute force attacks. That being said, AES encryption is nearly impossible to crack with brute force.
Let’s look an interesting example calculation taken from Seagate’s Technology paper “128-Bit Versus 256-Bit AES Encryption.”
To put it into perspective, if:
Then, given those conditions, the earth’s population could crack one encryption key in 77,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years! And that’s only for 128-bit AES encryption!
Weaknesses in Encryption
Especially after seeing the calculation shown above, you might believe that encryption algorithms are absolutely unbreakable.
Unfortunately, that’s not true.
As new weaknesses are exploited, new encryption methods are created to counter these exploits in order to build new layers of security.
The biggest weakness of encryption algorithms is the fact that some algorithms fail to generate seemingly random strings of ciphertext, but instead generate recognizable patterns.
For example, when a hacker is able to identify a pattern, it helps them greatly to crack the ciphertext.
This issue also applies to algorithms that generate patterns that are predictable, as a result of repetitive and certain data input tests.
It’s unlikely for a hacker to crack all cipher blocks, but exposing only a few blocks could already lead to the leakage of crucial, sensitive data - and the consequences may be disastrous.
However, the time, effort and computational cost that are needed to crack an algorithm such as the AES makes it an extremely expensive endeavor, and an attempt is rather pointless.
The biggest threats to the security of encrypted data are mostly outside the power of technology. Think about keyloggers that log what key or passphrase you enter, as well as backdoors and other forms of malware that are used to obtain encryption keys.
If you want to protect your Windows or Mac device against such threats, read my post on the best antivirus software.
What Have We Learned (Don’t Be Overwhelmed!)
Awesome! You’ve made it to the very end of this extensive, information-packed guide to give you a better understanding of what encryption is and how it works.
It’s safe to say that data protection is important to everyone, not just to governments and large enterprises. Your own privacy is on the line!
Now you know that encryption transforms plaintext (readable text) into ciphertext (unreadable text).
Generally, encryption works like that, but there are different methods such as symmetric and asymmetric encryption, which both take a different approach on how the data is encrypted and how it can be decrypted.
Now it’s time to enjoy a safe way of sending and receiving sensitive data and messages!