Unprotected digital assets are vulnerable to attack, and it is the responsibility of organizations to keep valuable data from falling into the wrong hands. One of the best methods of protecting data is encryption. Encryption is the process of encoding data or information so that only authorized persons can access or read it. Once encrypted, data that is intercepted becomes undecipherable without a specific key.
Encryption is a staple of modern IT paradigms. It provides an additional layer of security and ensures that even if an attacker gains access to the encrypted data, it remains inaccessible and meaningless.
What is Encryption?
Encryption provides a layer of security by transforming plaintext into ciphertext that can only be read using authorized methods. The text gets scrambled using an algorithm and can only be deciphered with the appropriate decryption key. Highly secure encryption methods utilize hundred or even thousand-character-long strings as decryption keys, neutralizing brute force attacks. A computer cannot predict the right decryption string just by trying every possible combination.
Earlier encryption techniques were more straightforward. For example, the Caesar Cipher, named after the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar who used this method, encrypted a message by shifting each letter by a specific amount. The method isn't taken seriously anymore since it can be easily guessed with basic knowledge of the English language. Modern encryption techniques are far more advanced.
Types of Encryption Algorithms
There are two main types of encryption algorithms: symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical encryption requires the sender and recipient to have the same secret key. It's the cheaper option, but it's also less effective. A bad actor can decrypt any message if they find the key.
Asymmetrical, or public-key, encryption uses two keys: public and private. The public key is used for encryption, while the private key decrypts data. This type of encryption requires more computing power than symmetrical encryption, but it's considered more reliable since only the receiver can access the private key.
How Encryption Protects Sensitive Data
Unencrypted data is naked and visible to whoever accesses it. Encryption acts as a critical shield against prohibited access to sensitive data.
Data can get stolen during transmission and “at rest", which simply refers to data in storage. Thorough encryption protocols create a secure tunnel during transit. They also disguise data when stored in databases or on file systems, ensuring the confidentiality and integrity of information at all times.
Encryption derails bad intentions by preventing cyber criminals from understanding the content of stolen data. In the past, businesses only needed physical security measures such as locks and safes. But with valuable knowledge becoming increasingly digital, encryption is now a must-have security measure for any organization that handles sensitive information.
Encryption prevents unauthorized access through passwords, biometrics, and hardware keys.
Here are some examples of how encryption protects sensitive data:
- Secure Payments: Encryption is used to protect sensitive financial and personally identifiable information (PII) during checkout.
- Secure Database Storage: Databases are encrypted, so malicious users cannot access or change their content.
- Email Encryption: Emails sent via public networks can get intercepted by third parties and read in plaintext. Email encryption ensures that emails remain private.
Importance of Encryption in Information Security
Encryption is a non-negotiable component of an organization's security policy, protecting both company and customer data. If company data leaks, it could damage the business' reputation or give privileged information to its competitors.
If customer data is exposed, companies may face hefty fines and lawsuits. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) are just two examples of legislation that ask organizations to encrypt data to ensure users’ privacy.
Neither GDPR nor CCPA demand encryption explicitly, but CCPA regulations, for instance, levy a $7,500 fine for every instance of unencrypted breached data. The GDPR demands "appropriate technological and organizational measures to secure personal data." Beyond just fines and lawsuits, a data breach can impact a company’s reputation and irreparably harm relationships with customers.
Challenges and Limitations of Encryption
Encryption is a necessary security measure, but it isn’t perfect or free of drawbacks.
One challenge organizations face when implementing encryption is finding the right balance between usability and encryption strength. Encryption can become cumbersome if users must enter passwords each time they want to access a system or application.
Additionally, encryption does not protect against insider threats. If a malicious employee or contractor can access the decryption key, they can read whatever data they want.
Another limitation of encryption is that it doesn't stop all threats from invading your network. Attacks targeting endpoints, social engineering, or compromised devices can bypass encryption measures. It is crucial to adopt a layered security approach that combines encryption with other security controls to ensure comprehensive protection.
Best Practices for Encryption
Organizations must ensure their encryption procedures guarantee users' privacy and data security. Here are some tips to follow when implementing encryption:
- Use Strong Encryption Algorithms: Organizations should use robust algorithms such as AES, RSA, or HMAC.
- Regularly Change Encryption Keys: A regular key rotation schedule makes the key less likely to be compromised. Ensure keys are properly generated and stored as well.
- Don't Store Sensitive Data Unencrypted: Any sensitive data stored must get encrypted on a server, hard drive, or mobile device.
You can implement encryption in your organization using a secure encryption solution, such as an encryption tool or cloud-based service. Remember to also provide staff training on encryption practices and protocols.
Encryption is a fundamental part of information security and ensuring the security of the sensitive information within your organization. Encryption does have its disadvantages, but organizations can mitigate risk, ensure compliance, and bolster customer trust by using strong algorithms and regularly changing encryption keys.
Prioritize data encryption to protect your business and empower your security team to create a resilient defense against evolving cyber threats. Contact SafeBase to schedule a free demo and explore how our platform can help you showcase your security policies, including encryption, to build long-lasting customer trust.