Encryption techniques are all around us today and are used to keep our personal data, and state secrets, safe from prying eyes. But what techniques are available, and how secure are they?
In the following article, we'll take a quick look at what encryption is and highlight some of the more common ones used around the world. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide but is, simply, a short overview.
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What is encryption?
Encryption is a process of converting information (usually digital today) into a form that can not easily be read using ciphers and algorithms, if intercepted. The use of data encryption for protecting information has been used for millennia by nations, to various degrees of sophistication.
But our modern digital world has required the technology to be rolled out to members of the public.
There are many encryption techniques out there and some of them are leagues ahead of the rest. But, the most common tend to be examples such as the Advanced Encryption Standard or AES.
But all of them, in effect, are used to prevent unauthorized access to your data online or offline. Each and every one of them is only good so long as the encryption keys are kept hidden from third-parties.
They are used for things like entering credit card details online or filling in forms with your personal information. Encryption is basically everywhere and is even utilized by some applications and websites when sending messages to friends and family.
Many web browsers today tend to self-encrypt text while connecting to a secure server. This is especially true of the URL starts with ‘https’.
This means you are on a secure encrypted website (Hypertext Transfer Protocol, Secure), and is a must-have for sites that collect critical information like financial information.
The advent of AI, quantum computing, and other techniques will likely demand much more powerful and secure encryption techniques in the near future.
What are the best and most commonly-used encryption techniques right now?
Digital encryption of data is essential to the modern-day world. It is used widely in things like e-commerce (to protect personal and financial information), military and government communication (for obvious reasons), and many more applications.
Whilst it is widespread, not all encryption is cut from the same cloth. Many previously widely used encryption techniques are now long past their sell-by-date.
Many current advances in processing power, machine learning and the field of cryptology, in general, have created some very strong modern encryption techniques indeed.
To date, there are several encryption techniques that are widely considered by experts to be the most secure.
These are as follows:
RSA or Rivest-Shamir-Adleman is one of the most secure and powerful encryption techniques around. It supports incredible key lengths, and it is typical to see 2048- and 4096- bit keys.
RSA is an asymmetric encryption algorithm, which means it has two separate encryption keys. The first encrypts information that is public to everyone, whilst the other is used to decrypt the data and is always private.
RSA is widely used around the world and is commonly used to encrypt data that passes through the Internet. It is incredibly strong, but it’s also very slow, which means it is unsuitable for either encrypting discs or web traffic.
This means it tends to be used to encrypt the keys for other algorithms. RSA is great but if the private key is somehow exposed, the whole encryption process loses its effectiveness.
There are reports that 768-bit RSA keys have been broken in the past; hence, the more common use of 1024-bit keys today.
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
Advanced Encryption Standard, or AES for short, is an example of another algorithm that tends to be paired with RSA. AES is considered so strong that it is the official encryption standard for the United States Government.
AES was developed by the U.S. Nation Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2001.
"It relies on keys made up of 16-byte plaintext blocks to generate keys of 128, 192 and 256 bits. To put that into perspective, it would take years for even dozens of supercomputers to guess the key," notes lean.g2.com.
There are some theoretical attacks that could break the encryption faster than a brute force method, but they haven't yet materialized.
The United States Government consider AES so good, that it is a vital component for their protection of Top Secret information.
TwoFish is widely regarded by security analysts as the fastest and one of the most secure encryption algorithms around. It is a superb choice for both hardware and software alike.
The Twofish algorithm works with 128, 196, and 256-bit keys, and features a complex key structure that makes it difficult to crack.
It also happens to be free to use. TwoFish tends to be included in many off-the-shelf and free encryption software, like VeraCrypt and is very popular.
Data Encryption Standard (DES)
Data Encryption Standard, or DES for short, is one of the older encryption techniques out there and is widely considered obsolete. That being said, it can still be found in many products and provides a basic level of encryption that isn't too computational-power hungry.
It was originally thought to be unbreakable but increases in computer power and drop in hardware price have effectively rendered its 56-bit encryption redundant - especially for sensitive information.
It tends to be a common feature of smart cards and limited-resource appliances.
With DES being effectively rendered obsolete after a 23-hour crack, the U.S. Government realized a stronger encryption technique was drastically needed. This led to the development of TripleDES (aka 3DS or TDES).
With 3DS, data is encrypted, decrypted, and then encrypted again, giving an effective key length of 168 bits. This is strong enough for the most sensitive data.
TripleDES can have one of three keying options that include:
Option 1 - All three keys are independent. This is the strongest form.
Option 2 - Two of the three keys are independent. This offers a key strength of around 112 buts.
Option 3 - All three keys are the same. This is the least secure of the three, for obvious reasons.
However, while TripleDES is stronger than standard DES, it is not perfect and is also considered nearing the end of its life.
What are the best file encryption tools?
If you want to encrypt your files, there are a few software packages on the market that will get the job done. Many of them come with a freeware version but for best results, you should always consider their premium packages.
That being said, here are some of the best encryption software on the market:
LastPass is one of the most popular file encryption software on the market. Its free version handles the basics but is limited when compared to what a premium package can offer.
It is great for securing and storing things like your passwords and other personal data.
BitLocker is a Microsoft encryption software and is pretty popular amongst users. It can be used to either encrypt a particular disk partition on your computer or the entire hard disk, depending on your requirements.
This software is built into any of the latest Windows operating systems and utilizes AES encryption for data.
VeraCrypt is a great encryption software and is available on Windows, OS X and Linux. Like BitLocker, it also uses AES and is open source.
DiskCryptor is another open-source, and free, encryption software. It comes highly recommended and is great for securing internal and external drives.
It also supports system partition and is handy for USB flash drives and other portable external storage devices.
DiskCryptor can be used to provide full-disk encryption on Windows OS and uses various encryption algorithms including AES, TwoFish, and Serpent.
7-Zip, unlike others included here, is specifically designed for encrypting files and documents rather than entire hard disks. This is another free and open-source encryption software and is very easy-to-use.
This software tool is capable of extracting most archives and features strong AES-256 encryption.
AxCrypt, just like 7-Zip, is another free open source file encryption software. It also comes in a premium version for most platforms.
It utilizes AES-256 encryption, and can be used to keep files, folders or entire groups of files secure with a simple click of your mouse. Selected files can be encrypted for a set time period or can be set to auto-decrypt after a certain period of time.