When nations are at war, weapons and troops aren’t the only way to win. Knowledge was also extremely powerful. Countries spent an extraordinary amount of effort to intercept the enemy’s message. But once they got it, they couldn’t understand it! Not just because it might have been in another language, but because it was garbled into a strange code. That strange code is our introduction to encryption.
Entire departments were mobilized to break the code and get at those secrets. Codebreaking is another way to talk about decryption. If you’ve heard of The Imitation Game or A Beautiful Mind, those movies tell the stories of some very famous codebreakers.
If we haven’t lost you to a great film yet, we would love to tell you more about encryption. It sounds like something for fancy mathematicians and super nerds, but it’s part of all the everyday things we do with our technology. No wars are being won, but it doesn’t hurt to learn.
Explain encryption to me like I’m five
Encryption is just a way to scramble information. If someone were to get their hands on encrypted information, they’d have no idea what they’re looking at. Decryption is used to turn that scrambled information back into its original format.
Most digital communications, whether it’s accessing a website or putting in your credit card info while checking out of an online store, include some form of encryption. There are two different types, and many different formats within each type of encryption.
Symmetric vs. asymmetric encryption algorithms
The difference between the two types of encryption lies in whether or not the same key is used to encrypt and decrypt the message.
If you’re a master of words, you can probably guess that symmetric encryption uses the same key to scramble and unscramble the encrypted information. These methods are usually much faster, but you also have to pass the key along to the recipient, which could make managing its security more difficult. One of the popular formats for symmetric encryption that you may see tossed around is AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). It’s used in a ton of things like WinZip and WhatsApp.
Asymmetric encryption will use two different keys: a public one and a private one. They keys are related together through the same encryption algorithm, and one is used to encrypt while the other decrypts. Because there’s more than one key, asymmetric encryption can take longer. But asymmetric encryption also provides additional security because you can pass information to complete strangers without ever needing to share your own private key. A popular format you may hear about is RSA which is commonly used for web browsers and VPNs.
That’s cool and all, but why should I care?
The first thing that matters is that you’re using tools, apps, and programs that use encryption. Seeing that word is a good step in keeping your information, messages, images, and files secure and private.
Then you look to what kind of encryption is used and how strong it is. As a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t settle for anything less than the following protocols: - AES with a 256-bit key - RSA with a 2048-bit key - ECDH
If a company won’t tell you what encryption protocol they’re using, that should be a red flag. They should be proud to support their encryption methods and talk about them. Our software is zero knowledge and uses ECDH encryption, so we can’t look at your messages, files, and meetings and neither can a quantum computer!