What is data encryption?
Data encryption is a method that protects your sensitive information by transforming it into a form that is unreadable to unauthorized individuals. It’s as if you were translating your data into a secret language that can only be understood by those who know the language. This ensures that, even if unauthorized parties gain access to your data, they cannot read it without the right key, and breaking this key is nearly impossible due to the large amount of time and processing power required. Data encryption, in essence, functions as a strong lock and key mechanism, ensuring your vital information remains safe and secure.
There is a lot of history behind data encryption that goes back to before the invention of computers and cybersecurity. Encryption methods emerged in ancient times as a means of securing information that should not fall into the wrong hands.
What is the purpose of encrypting data?
While it is apparent that encryption is critical in the context of military communications and espionage, or very sensitive operations such as financial transactions, the need to secure data with encryption in more typical circumstances could be overlooked.
Certain sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, obviously has a high value to thieves. Possession of all credit card information, including the expiration date and CVC, gives someone the power to make unauthorized purchases. Those actions may appear to be easily traceable and reversible, but criminals might abuse geographical and legal borders or make non-material purchases, making it harder to bring them to justice, and the dispute process is not always easy nor effective, and, even when it is, it is time-consuming. In essence, the theft of such data might cause significant financial harm.
However, the importance of sensitive data does not end there. Even seemingly benign information, such as name, address, and phone number, can become powerful tools in the hands of unauthorized users with malicious intent. This kind of information enables identity theft by allowing somebody to impersonate another, and, for example, take out credit, engage in criminal activities, or commit fraud. This demonstrates how even modest amounts of data can have far-reaching repercussions if it gets into the wrong hands.
As a result, in today’s computing and networking environments, the prevalent method is to encrypt data extensively. In contrast to the early 2000s, when many Internet protocols were unencrypted, today’s landscape assures that practically every website uses encrypted connections to protect online “conversations” from prying eyes. Furthermore, an increasing number of people are encrypting their mobile devices, laptops, and desktop computers to prevent unauthorized access in the event of theft.
Most crucially, companies entrusted with sensitive data are frequently mandated to keep that data in encrypted formats, lowering the dangers of data breaches and boosting the security of their customers’ information. In several industries, encryption that can be proven during a certification audit is necessary to maintain this certification. While only some standards like PCI DSS explicitly require encryption, others such as HIPAA and ISO 27001 may not enforce its use, but their requirements for data security practically make it a necessity.
How does encryption work?
In modern computing, two primary types of encryption have emerged as the most common: Symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption. Some encryption algorithms today include features of both approaches for increased security. The fundamental difference between these systems is encryption key management.
With symmetric encryption, the same key is used for both encryption and decryption, simplifying the process but posing a challenge in securely distributing the key to all relevant parties. Asymmetric encryption, on the other hand, uses two unique keys: A public key, which anybody may use to encrypt data before transmission, and a private key, which is only known to the intended recipient. This dual-key approach simplifies communication by eliminating the need for symmetric encryption’s safe key distribution process.
Modern encryption is based on mathematical algorithms, and its success is based on a fundamental concept: The mathematical operations employed in encryption are meant to be simple to perform one way but extremely difficult to reverse.
Asymmetric and symmetric encryption are frequently mixed for a simple reason, asymmetric, or two-key, encryption is more complex and resource-intensive. Simply put, when dealing with large amounts of data, symmetric algorithms are substantially faster for both encryption and decryption. To counteract that problem, current encryption systems may use a dual-layer method. They generate a symmetric encryption key and then protect it with asymmetric encryption. This method ensures that only a small piece of data is encrypted with the asymmetric key, ensuring security by allowing only the intended receiver to decrypt it, extract the symmetric key, and decipher the data.
Encrypting data at rest
Encrypting data at rest involves protecting data stored on a hard drive, a USB stick, a database, or any other medium where it will remain during its use. The primary goal is to prevent illicit access to this data in the event that someone who is unauthorized accesses the storage medium. In this case, symmetric encryption is an effective solution, since data at rest does not require key transfers.
Data at rest can be encrypted at several levels, for example, file encryption, directory encryption, or drive encryption, where the entire disk is encrypted, including the operating system data. In the case of databases, you can encrypt the entire database or simply the sensitive data contained within it. Full-disk encryption software is commonly used in modern computers and laptops and may work together with features such as biometrics (i.e., fingerprint or face recognition) to offer easy and safe access without the need to remember passcodes or use additional protection such as multi-factor authentication (MFA).
In the context of business data and databases, companies often choose to encrypt only specific data – that which contains sensitive information. This is necessary due to the huge volume of requests handled by these databases. Encryption always prolongs access time, and in the case of processing large volumes, it can have a major impact on performance or require much more resources. As a result, it makes sense for businesses to encrypt only the data that needs to be protected.
Performance is not an issue in the context of user devices. As a result, even if the full device encryption is in force, some businesses prefer an additional layer of encryption for the data stored on the encrypted disk. This secondary encryption applies to specific data elements and is frequently controlled not by the operating system but by specialist security products such as data loss prevention (DLP) solutions. This additional security mechanism enables only temporary data decryption and viewing, reducing the risk of user errors such as unauthorized access when the user steps away from the device, as well as the risk of malicious hackers accessing the device via the network or malware.
Encrypting data in motion
Encrypting data in motion is not the same as encrypting data at rest. Since symmetric encryption requires key exchange among multiple parties, it is often insufficient for data in motion, making asymmetric encryption crucial. However, in such cases, asymmetric encryption is typically used only to securely communicate the key necessary for symmetric encryption.
When we think of data in motion, we usually think of network transmissions, but there are many other scenarios that involve data in motion, for example, removable media encryption. After all, giving someone an encrypted USB drive involves data in motion because the encryption key must be safely transmitted. However, the vast majority of data in motion nowadays is related to networking, notably TCP/IP networks and the Internet.
In today’s digital landscape, the preeminent standard for data in motion encryption is TLS, which evolved from SSL. TLS not only secures website connections within the HTTPS protocol, but it also acts as the foundation for several other secure networking protocols, such as secure email and secure FTP. Nonetheless, in these cases, TLS’s primary job is to protect the actual data transmission between source and destination, rather than to validate the recipient’s authority to view the data.
In some cases, TLS alone may not be sufficient. Take, for example, secure email. While TLS ensures secure connections between email servers, the email remains unencrypted once it reaches the receiver’s machine, regardless of whether the authorized user is accessing it. This is why many communications, such as email, require additional encryption procedures to ensure that only the intended recipient has access to the content. Unfortunately, no common standards exist, forcing users to rely on alternatives such as the asymmetric encryption scheme Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). PGP, on the other hand, often necessitates technical expertise to install and configure, and is not integrated into regular email systems or clients.
Challenges of encrypting data
Encrypting data has become exceptionally simplified in the present context, with a plethora of built-in encryption options, algorithms, network protocols, and supplemental security solutions. Unless dealing with massive data quantities, our technological capability has improved to the point where the resource and time overhead of encryption is either insignificant or, at the very least, tolerable, leading to encryption policies covering a large portion of data at rest and data in motion. Secure websites, for example, have no discernible latency when accessed compared to their insecure equivalents.
Nonetheless, problems with encryption loom, particularly from the fast-expanding science of quantum computing. Quantum computers operate on concepts that are substantially different from traditional computers, making their processing capacity stunningly powerful for specific applications, like decryption.
However, the rapid speed of technological breakthroughs cannot be overlooked. Also, malicious actors are now gathering data from numerous sources, such as encrypted information sourced from data theft via malware, or intercepted encrypted transmissions, and hoarding it for future use. They are looking forward to the day when quantum computing will make decryption of this stored data nearly instantaneous. Although some of today’s data may be worthless to attackers in a few years, a lot of sensitive information will stay valuable, such as for example, medical or personal history records.
Academic circles and innovative startups are actively studying solutions to this problem, with a focus on developing quantum-resistant encryption techniques. Furthermore, they are investigating quantum-entanglement-based encryption for data in motion, with successful experiments, such as quantum-entanglement-based encryption video transmissions.
Considering this looming doom to today’s encryption, we should expect significant advancements in encryption algorithms in the near future, with the goal of strengthening data protection and maintaining security in the age of quantum computing. This is now one of the most critical cyber threats in the realm of data security.
Endpoint Protector as an Endpoint Encryption Solution
Encryption is one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of DLP software, particularly endpoint protection solutions like Endpoint Protector by CoSoSys. Endpoint Protector employs encryption for sensitive data using two mechanisms, covering both data at rest and in motion.
Enforced USB drive encryption: The endpoint security policy can require that any USB drive connected to any business laptops or desktops be encrypted automatically. This restriction makes it impossible for users to save important data to the USB drive in plain text, preventing data loss in the event that the USB device is stolen or lost.
Encryption of discovered sensitive data: The security policy can specify that any sensitive data at rest detected by Endpoint Protector on the user’s computer be automatically encrypted. Endpoint Protector can be set to continuously monitor and scan the device for sensitive data, and it will respond to any newly detected sensitive data by deleting or encrypting it for enhanced security, depending on administrator decisions and security policies.
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