Encryption has been in the news for months. From Apple’s highly-publicized battle with the FBI, to WhatsApp’s announcement they’ve added end-to-end encryption throughout their app, encryption has definitely been in the forefront. With all this encryption buzz, we wanted to take a step back and look at the basics behind the news.
What is Encryption?
Encryption is a way to secure and protect digital data, information and communications sent over the Internet or other networks. As described by How To Geek, encryption is “taking some information that makes sense and scrambling it so it becomes gibberish.”
How Does Encryption Work?
Encryption uses an algorithm to scramble data, so it cannot be viewed by anyone except those with the “key.” As described by CSM the key is a “very large number that an encryption algorithm uses to change the data back not a readable form.” Only people with the key can read the unencrypted data.
In technical terms: encryption converts data from plaintext into a form called ciphertext using an algorithm and encryption key. The ciphertext can only be opened (decrypted) with the correct key.
What is End-to-End Encryption?
End-to-end encryption means only the sender or recipient of the encrypted communication have the keys. As described by Wired, end-to-end encryption “means that messages are encrypted in a way that allows only the unique recipient of a message to decrypt it, and not anyone in between. In other words, only the endpoint computers hold the cryptographic keys, and the company’s server acts as an illiterate messenger, passing along messages that it can’t itself decipher.”
What is an “Encryption Backdoor?”
An encryption backdoor is a way for someone other than the sender and recipient to access the encrypted communication. In the context of recent governmental debates, the government “wants a backdoor into encrypted communications,” meaning they want to be able to access and decrypt messages sent over Apple’s iMessage program. As described simply by CSM, the government wants “a way around the system’s security features.”
Where is Encryption Used?
Encryption can be implemented in a variety of places, including smartphones & mobile devices; Internet browsers (a URL starting with “https” indicates an encrypted connection between your browser and the website); computers & harddrives; and email.
Why Does Encryption Matter?
Encryption is an essential tool for protecting your privacy, personal information and communications. Encryption can protect information both in-transit (being sent across networks) and at rest (being stored on a device). Encryption is also a fundamental right:
Encryption is the Second Amendment for the Internet.
What are some common places encryption is used?
Internet browsers: When you visit a website, check the URL bar for "HTTPS" before the site’s address. Many sites and platforms are adopting HTTPS encryption, which protects the connection between your browser and a website from anyone trying to see or modify information you submit to that site. This protects sensitive data such as credit card details or passwords. Companies such as Google and Mozilla are working to make this encrypted connection more obvious to Internet users with icons in the URL bar, such as a lock to indicate a secure connection. This helps users better understand whether their connection to a website is secure, as they might not want to submit sensitive information – such as a social security number – if there is a higher chance it could be stolen.
E-mail: However, HTTPS encryption does not prevent your e-mail provider from being able to read your messages. Software such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), also called Gnu Privacy Guard (GPG), or S/MIME can encrypt the body of your e-mail so that no one but the person receiving the e-mail can read it – not even your e-mail provider. This doesn’t protect your e-mail's "metadata," which is general information about your message. This includes who sent and received the message and at what time, as well as the subject line and details on how big any attachments may be.
Computers and hard drives: Full disk encryption protects all data stored on the computer or external hard drive. That means that if an unauthorized person were to download data from an encrypted hard drive, they wouldn’t be able to read any of the files stored on it. The person who owns the device accesses it as they normally do with a password.
Smartphones: Depending on the version of the iOS or Android operating systems that a smartphone is running, device encryption may be available. In this case, the encryption protects files stored on the phone.
Apple offers encryption by default in the latest version of its iOS operating system; this is enabled by setting a passcode for the lockscreen. If you choose a numeric pin, experts recommend choosing one that is longer than four digits, as it will be more difficult for an attacker to break. Phones running iOS8, the previous version, also have the option to encrypt their data easily. For its part, Google enabled encryption by default for some new devices running the most recent operating system, but not all, despite announcing its commitment to do so for the previous version of Android. Users running the latest Android operating system can enable encryption in their settings.
Many smartphone apps, too, have encrypted connections to ensure the data sent from them is secure, and some communication apps boast end-to-end encryption. Popular mobile Internet browsers also support HTTPS encryption.
Want to try encryption?
Begin by installing software updates for your operating systems and applications to help eliminate any existing software vulnerabilities that could be used to compromise your computer. Then, try some of these:
Mobile: For mobile communication, Signal provides end-to-end encrypted messaging and calls for both iPhone and Android. Wickr is another option for encrypted mobile messaging and calls.
Online: HTTPS Everywhere is a browser extension that ensures that if a secure version of a site exists, an Internet browser connects to the secure version every time. It was created by digital rights nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
Your computer: To enable full-disk encryption on your computer, Windows users can use BitLocker, and Mac users can enable FileVault 2.
E-mail: PGP/GPG is a more advanced tool. The EFF has a guide on installing and using it for Windows and Mac.
- Privacy is a right and encryption is the right to defend yourself
- Encryption should be easy-to-use
- Encryption must be ubiquitous and undetectable
- No encryption backdoors
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