Whether or not you know what encryption is, you probably rely on it more than you think. We use encryption every day as part of online banking, online shopping, and every other kind of internet transaction. As more and more commerce and types of transactions occur over the internet, we will continue to rely on encryption to keep our online activities secure.
What is Encryption?
Encryption is the process used to hide our data, or the contents of a message, from prying eyes throughout the internet. During transmission (such as through a secure socket layer), the data is disguised using codes so that no one along the chain of networks that the data passes though to get to its source can understand the information being sent. When the data arrives at its destination, it is decrypted to reveal the information being transmitted.
The process of disguising the data is called encryption and the process of revealing the data from its encrypted form is called decryption. Both of these are common techniques used in cryptography - the scientific discipline behind secure connections. The processes are done using mathematical logic, or algorithms.
However, it is very difficult to keep the logic behind any given algorithm truly secret, so it's prudent to also rely on alternative forms on protection for your data. Algorithms will keep your information private from anyone not interested in exerting the effort to decode the data, but encryption won't always hide your personal information from a highly motivated hacker.
Encryption and Keys
So exactly does encryption work? How is data coded and decoded? This is all done using a key. A key is a long sequence of bits used by cryptography algorithms. To an observer, a key looks like a long string of 1's and 0's with occasional spaces.
During encryption, the algorithm alters the original data based on the key's bits to create a new encrypted message. When the data arrives at it's destination, the same or a different key is used to decode the encrypted message back into its original form.
Some algorithms use the same key for encryption and decryption. The information transferred using this method is less secure because it's security relies on the key being kept secret. If anyone finds out the key, they can decode the data.
Other algorithms use one key for encryption and one key for decryption. With this method, it's ok if the encryption key becomes public, because anyone who finds it will still not be able to decrypt the data without the decryption key.
Encryption, Keys, and SSLs
Keys provide the protection of a secure network, and a secure network is only as secure at its keys. In fact, the effectiveness of a secure socket layer (SSL) is measured by the strength of the key that it uses. The longer the key is (or the more bits used within it), the stronger the key, and thus the more effective the SSL and the more protection the user of the network has.