What Does Encryption Mean and Why Is It Important?

Aaron Walker
Aaron Walker  |  January 28, 2019

Encryption is a bit mysterious, but it’s becoming more and more necessary in today’s tumultuous cyber landscape.

Luckily, more and more security technologies are incorporating encryption software and its features to protect sensitive personal and business information.

What does encryption mean?

Encryption relies on two core concepts: masking information and generating keys. Data, files or communications are first masked, and then require a key to unlock. These keys are essentially long, randomly generated passwords, and only the initial user and approved parties can use the key to decrypt the information.

TIP: Encryption software is used to mask files, text, and data to protect your information.

See the Highest-Rated Encryption Software, Free →

From passwords to datasets, encryption can protect virtually any digital information. In the modern world of so many cybersecurity threats, hackers continue to succeed in penetrating applications, networks and databases. So the more encryption you have, the less data a hacker can capture after the network is penetrated.

Understanding encryption

Think of the way you read this blog. Normal words like these are easily interpreted and are often referred to as plain text. Encryption turns plain text into something called ciphertext. Algorithms generate the cipher (transformed, illegible text), which can only be decrypted by authorized users.

Encryption began long before computers even existed. Ancient civilizations like the Egyptians and Assyrians encrypted their hieroglyphs and trading tools so only intended parties could understand what they said.

As time passed, encryption continued to be used. The WWII story of Alan Turing and the Enigma machine involved deciphering encrypted messages to gain sensitive Nazi war plans. But once the computer came into play, encryption became more useful and more powerful.

Modern encryption followed the development of mainframe and personal computers. Early computers could encrypt documents and require keys to access sensitive data. The onset of the internet not only improved the technology behind encryption, but the necessity for it.

Today, encryption secures information from bitcoin transactions to government databases. And there are many ways to incorporate encryption into your IT infrastructure to beef up security.

Asymmetric vs. symmetric encryption

Symmetric encryption is a bit older than asymmetric encryption, the former having existed for decades. It relies on the simple idea that a private key is used to encrypt and decrypt the information. With symmetric encryption algorithms, a single key is generated for anyone needing to gain access to the document, file or hard drive.

 Symmetric Vs Asymmetric Encryption

The usage of asymmetric encryption algorithm arose after people realized it was dangerous to share these decryption keys online. Someone thought it might make more sense to require different keys for encryption and decryption: a public key and a private key.

The public key is generated first in this scenario. This key is owned by the user and is actually shared with the public — anyone can use it. Users in possession of this key can encrypt information and share it, but only the original user has the private key required to decrypt the information.

It’s a fairly simple difference. Symmetric (or private key) encryption requires one key for both encryption and decryption. Asymmetric encryption requires a public key to encrypt data as well as a private key to decipher it.

Both types of encryption have their faults. Asymmetric encryption is slower and is susceptible to brute force attacks. Symmetric encryption poses the risk of keys being shared with unapproved parties or stolen from cybercriminals.

Either way, it’s safer to use an encryption solution than not to use one at all if you’re handling any kind of sensitive data, information, or communications.

Benefits of encryption

The overall benefit of encryption is information security. But information can travel through applications, across networks and between devices.

General network encryption tools like Tor and Privatoria can create virtual private networks (VPNs) or layered anonymous networks to protect users from malicious sites. Networks interlink anonymously or refer communications to a server on the other side of the world. This either blocks the visibility of your IP address or presents an alternate IP address to prevent third parties from viewing activity and data.

These general-purpose encryption tools can help protect sensitive information from many access points, keeping people and businesses safe. But they’re not the only tools that use encryption technology, and many encryption solutions can be acquired at no cost.

Encryption and data security

Many data security solutions have features to store information in encrypted forms or require encrypted keys for access control. These tools protect stored data and data being transferred between networks from hackers. They can be used within applications to fortify their backend information and secure user data.

Data security can also be used for technology, from virtual environments and databases to individual files and communications. Local files can be encrypted and stored wherever the users desires, with the assurance that only approved parties will have access to that information.

Device and endpoint encryption

Endpoints are often the most susceptible devices that hackers can gain access to. In a corporate scenario, an endpoint is simply any device that employees use to gain access into the company network. In a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) world, it is difficult for companies to manage security across dozens of device types, operating systems, and applications.

Companies can encrypt any device, from servers to cell phones. Full disk encryption is a term used to describe encrypting an entire hard drive. This could prevent hackers who access an individual device from entering networks or viewing sensitive information, easing stress on both the company and the user while securing data and saving money.

Users often forget to update operating systems and applications, leaving them highly susceptible to theft by hackers who exploit unpatched systems. Device and endpoint encryption saves companies from worrying if an employee loses a laptop at the airport or a tablet in a coffee shop. Endpoint protection tools can help identify outdated software and keep user devices up to date with the latest fortification techniques.

Encrypted communications

Information is all over the place — whether we like it or not. Every day we send emails and instant messages at work that should never be seen by competitors or thieves. And it’s hard to know when your email or device has been compromised.

Companies often use secure email gateways and secure web gateways to prevent against intrusions like adware or phishing scams. These gateway tools control what users can access through the use of web and content filtering. The tools identify ads with dangerous links and block emails from suspicious senders.

Careless behavior can significantly contribute to the vulnerability of information systems. Companies don’t always provide information on best practices for making passwords or clicking links. Encryption tools help combat human error and reduce the frequency of employees encountering potentially dangerous content. Other methods, such as having a secure single sign-on solution and knowing if your business needs an application service vs. a web server, can help your company stay secure.

Encryption has evolved from an ancient communication technique to a technology of the future. It’s often the only thing in the way of a hacker viewing credit information, passwords and just about any other information you can think of. Encryption tools can save companies from unintentionally endangering themselves and their customers.

Looking for more on encryption?

Check out email encryption software category for hundreds of validated user reviews across more than 100 products. Or visit G2 Crowd’s Cybersecurity Trends in 2019 page to learn about other innovative and cutting-edge cybersecurity technologies. 

Are you a security professional interested in free security tools? Check out our list of the 6 best free encryption software to consider in 2019.

Aaron Walker

Aaron Walker

Aaron is a Senior Research Specialist who focuses on cybersecurity, information technology and software development. He began at G2 Crowd in 2016 after graduating from The University of Iowa. Aaron has written for The Daily Herald, Tribune Media, and The Daily Iowan, among other media outlets. In his free time, Aaron enjoys shooting film photography and fine-tuning his illustration skills.