Do you know what encryption is? Discover 5 ways to encode messages

Understand what encryption is and learn how it keeps your PC, cell phone and messages safe

You've probably seen this term used on the Internet, but do you know what cryptography is? It could be the most important technology we have. Most digital security measures, everything from secure browsing to secure email, depend on it. Without encryption, we would have no privacy. Encryption is a technique that turns a message into a type of code that only the people who have the “key” can read. Although it seems like something very complex, it's possible that you may have used it at some point in your life without even knowing it.

For example? It was common in the 90s/80s for girls to keep a type of diary where they wrote down everyday events, secrets and their secret passions at school. When they wrote something that shifted the letters to words that didn't make sense or used a word with a different meaning than it actually was and only they could read it, that was cryptography. So it's not something that unusual in our everyday lives before and it's even more common today.

So what is encryption? We'll tell you in this article.

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what is encryption
Encryption means security

What is encryption?

What is encryption? If you write something important, private, or sensitive, you may worry that someone else will read it. If you need to give it to a messenger to take to someone else, the risk of the wrong people reading that message increases.

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Encryption changes the composition of a message or data so that only people who know how to return it to its original form can read it. To anyone else, it will appear as gibberish or a meaningless collection of characters and symbols.

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Protected information

The Scytal (Scytale)

From the earliest times, people have used different techniques to prevent anyone but the intended recipient from reading private messages. The ancient Greeks wound a strip of parchment in a tight spiral around a wooden rod called sitar. They wrote their message along the length of the stem, on the wrapped parchment.

Unrolled, the writing on the parchment made no sense. A messenger would deliver the scroll to the recipient, who would read the message privately, after wrapping it in its own corresponding fairy tale. This is a form of transposition cipher.

It's a primitive technique, but it contains elements you'll find in modern cryptography systems. Both the sender and receiver must know in advance what encryption is, what the encryption scheme is, and how to use it. And both need corresponding mechanisms to do this.

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Polybius Square (Poybius Square)

Another method used by the ancient Greeks was the polybius square. It was a grid of letters of five by five or six by six. A letter was referenced by its coordinates, like warships. The first letter of the first line would be coded as “11”, the fourth letter of the second line would be written as “42” and so on.

Of course, there are many ways to fill the grid with letters. Unless you know the layout of the letters, decryption is difficult. This allows you to set up a scheme with multiple squares with different layouts. You can create seven squares and use a different square for each day of the week, for example. Schemas that use multiple alphabets are called polyalphabetic ciphers.

A Polybius square is a form of code, so you need to know what cryptography is. A code replaces other letters with other characters, in this example, digits. The figures replace the letters with other letters.

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Caesar's cipher

Julius Caesar gave his name to Caesar's cipher. This uses an offset – or “rotation” – to select a letter at a set distance from the letter you are encoding. If you were using an offset of two, "A" would be written as "C" and "D" would be written as "F." The recipient must know the correct offset to use to decipher the message by subtracting the offset from the letters they received.

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A Caesar Cipher with a displacement of 13 – known as a “rotation 13” or ROT13 – has a special quality. There are 26 letters in the standard English alphabet and 13 divide into 26 exactly twice. With this offset, to decrypt something, you can put it back into the encoding process. Encryption twice takes you back to the original text.


If you choose the letters “GEEK” in the upper alphabet and look at the corresponding letters in the lower alphabet, you will get “TRRX”. If you do this again with “TRRX” in the upper alphabet, you will get the letters “GEEK” from the lower alphabet.

In terms of programming, this simplifies things because you only need to write one coding routine. There is no need for a decryption routine. That's why writing an ROT13 implementation is a common exercise for people just learning to program. ROT13 is also commonly presented as an example of very poor and low-grade encryption.

You can try it yourself with this ROT13 engine online. Try entering “Alaska Nynfxn” and then putting the output back in as input.

So what is encryption?

All of the examples we've given here are easy to break, but they illustrate a common element that's shared across all of them and across all forms of cryptography. There is a set of rules to follow to convert your original data, called “plain text”, to the cipher version, known as cipher text. This set of rules is an algorithm. And that's encryption.

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They are privacy algorithms.

How does encryption work?

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encrypted messages

Just like ancient Greece, a person in the digital age who wants to store or send private data faces challenges. What can you do to prevent unauthorized people from accessing your data? And what can be done to make it safe? Maybe knowing what encryption is can help with that.

All old systems could be overcome with knowledge of the crypto system. Use the same diameter rod and the scytale message becomes readable. The Caesar Cipher can be broken by trying different displacements in the first part of the message. You only have 25 to try at most.

Polybius squares pose a greater challenge because the layout of the letters within the square is unpredictable. If you know the layout of the square, it's not even a challenge. If you have no idea of ​​the square's layout, you can try deciphering the message by studying the ciphertext itself. This is called cryptanalysis.

With a simple cipher, you can use features like letter frequency tables to find out which letter of ciphertext represents which letter of plaintext. A secure encryption scheme must be secure, no matter who knows the mechanics of the scheme, and ciphertext must withstand cryptanalysis attacks.

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Robust digital schemes don't work on letters and characters one at a time like serial ciphers. They work with data one piece at a time and are called block ciphers.

They manipulate the bits – all those ones and zeros – within each block according to the rules of complicated mathematical transformations built into cryptographic algorithms. If an algorithm uses a 128-bit block size, it will iterate through the data in 128-bit blocks. If the last block to be processed is less than 128 bits, it will be filled with 128 bits.

There are many block encryption schemes available. O Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is the official United States government encryption standard. Different encryption schemes use different algorithms and different block lengths and make use of different combinations of mathematical transformations.

Hash Function

We'll look at a special case first. It is possible to encrypt data using a one-way transformation. This is the very antithesis of ROT13 because the resulting ciphertext cannot be reverted to plaintext. More precisely, it cannot be decrypted in a practical period of time. This type of encryption is used in hash functions where a plain text function is converted to a cipher text function, called a hash or hash function. All hash functions are the same length.

How is this helpful? Well, a secure site will not store your password in plain text. Your password is hashed and the hash function is stored. Your password is never kept. The next time you log in and enter your password, it will be hashed and the hash function is compared to the hash function stored in your account details. If they match, you can join. If you enter an incorrect password, the two hash sequences will not match and you will not be allowed to enter.

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This allows the site to use authentication without having to store passwords in an exposed way. If they are hacked, none of the passwords will be compromised. Hashing techniques can also add unique and random data, called a salt, to passwords before the hash. This means that all hashes are unique, even if two or more users have chosen the same password.

Encrypted hard drives

To prevent unauthorized people from decrypting the data, a key is used that identifies who encrypted it and who can decrypt it. A key is a long sequence of bytes generated by a complex algorithm. They typically range in size from 128 bytes to 2.048 bytes or more. The key is used by the encryption algorithm when encrypting the plain text. Key size is independent of block size.

To protect locally stored data, entire hard drives can be encrypted. Encryption is tied to the user's login identity and the key is automatically generated and automatically applied. The user has no direct interaction with the key, and the key never needs to be sent to anyone.

Since the key is tied to the user's login identity, removing the hard drive from the computer and connecting it to another computer will not allow access to the data. This type of protection protects static or “at rest” data.

If your data is to be transmitted, you need to consider how you will protect your data “in transit”.

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secure websites

When you connect to a website and see a lock symbol in the address bar, you know you are connected to a secure website, right? Well, more or less. What this really means is that the connection between your computer and the website is encrypted using SSL / TSL encryption.

That's fine, but it doesn't check the security of the rest of the site. The website can store passwords in plain text and use a default administrator password in the database. But at least if you see the lock, you'll know that your communication with the site is encrypted.

This encryption is possible because your browser and website use the same encryption scheme with multiple keys. At the start of a connection session, your browser and website exchange public keys. A public key can decrypt something that has been encrypted with a private key.

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Your browser and website exchange your public keys and encrypt using your private keys. Since each end of the connection has the other end's public key, each end can decrypt the information it receives from the other end. Private keys never need to be exposed.

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Releasing a public key is safe. A public key cannot be used to fraudulently encrypt data. So even though you receive a copy of a website's public key, you can't impersonate the original website because you don't have the private key. This raises the question of authenticity. How do you know that the site is the genuine owner of the public and private key pair, and not a copycat site that somehow stole the two keys from the original site?

Certificates are used to verify the identity of websites. These are issued by certification authorities once they have verified the applicant's identity. The website sends the certificate as part of the handshake at the start of a connection session so that the web browser can validate the certificate.

It does this by contacting the Certificate Authority and decrypting some information in the certificate. This requires even more keys. Your browser has public keys from major certification authorities as part of its installation package. And there are even more keys involved. In addition to exchanging public keys, your browser and website create unique session keys to further secure your communications.

After your browser verifies the authenticity of the website and the strength of the encryption, it places the padlock in the address bar. That's why it's important to know what encryption is.

Secure email

The concept of public and private keys comes up repeatedly in cryptography. A common method of securing email in transit uses public and private key pairs. Public keys can be exchanged securely, private keys are not shared. Messages are encrypted using the sender's private key. The recipient can use the sender's public key to decrypt and read. They can use their own private key to encrypt a response.

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OpenPGP is a well-known encryption scheme that follows this model, with one difference.

The sender's email client generates a random key. This is used to encrypt the email message. The random key is then encrypted with the recipient's public key. The encrypted message and encrypted random key are sent to the recipient. The recipient's email program uses your private key to decrypt the random key that is used to decrypt the message.

The purpose of the extra step is to allow an email to be sent securely to multiple recipients. Your email client doesn't need to encrypt the entire email separately for each recipient, just the random key.

Of course, secure email systems also face the issue of authenticity. You have to trust the public key that was sent to you. Keys are linked to email addresses. Receiving the public key for the email address you will be chatting with is a good first step. Most email clients can display the email address associated with a public key.

Another method of verifying the authenticity of a public key is to obtain it from a repository. Public keys uploaded to repositories are verified by the repository before being made public.

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Ransomware uses asymmetric encryption. This is encryption that uses a key pair to encrypt and decrypt a file. The public-private key pair is uniquely generated by the attacker for the victim, with the private key to decrypt the files stored on the attacker's server. The attacker makes the private key available to the victim only after the ransom has been paid, although, as seen in recent ransomware campaigns, this is not always the case. Without access to the private key, it is nearly impossible to decrypt the files being held for rescue.

There are many variations of ransomware. Ransomware (and other malware) is often distributed through email spam campaigns or through targeted attacks. Malware needs an attack vector to establish its presence on an endpoint. Once presence is established, the malware remains on the system until its task is completed.

After a successful exploit, the ransomware drops and executes malicious binary code on the infected system. This binary then searches and encrypts valuable files such as Microsoft Word documents, images, databases, and so on. Ransomware can also exploit system and network vulnerabilities to spread to other systems and possibly entire organizations.

After the files are encrypted, the ransomware prompts the user for a 24-48 hour ransom to decrypt the files, or they will be lost forever. If a data backup is not available or these backups are encrypted, the victim will have to pay the ransom to recover personal files.

Why is it so hard to find ransomware creators?

The use of anonymous cryptocurrency for payment, such as bitcoin, makes it difficult to track money and track down criminals. Increasingly, cybercrime groups are creating ransomware schemes to make quick profits. The easy availability of open source and drag-and-drop platforms for developing ransomware has accelerated the creation of new variants of ransomware and helps script novices create their own ransomware. Typically, high-end malware, such as ransomware, is polymorphic by design, which allows cybercriminals to easily bypass traditional signature-based security based on file hash.

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What is ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS)?

Ransomware-as-a-service is a cost-effective cybercrime model that allows malware developers to earn money for their creations without having to distribute their threats. Non-technical criminals buy your products and release infections, while paying developers a percentage of their share. Developers are at relatively little risk and their customers do most of the work. Some instances of ransomware as a service use subscriptions, while others require registration to gain access to the ransomware.

How to defend against ransomware

To avoid ransomware and mitigate damage if you are attacked, follow these tips:

  • Backup your data: The best way to avoid the threat of blocking your critical files is to ensure that you always have backup copies of them, preferably in the cloud and on an external hard drive. That way, if you get a ransomware infection, you can clean your computer or device and reinstall your files from the backup. This protects your data and you won't be tempted to reward malware authors by paying a ransom. Backups don't stop ransomware, but they can mitigate the risks.
  • Protect your backups: Make sure your backup data is not accessible for modification or deletion from the systems where the data resides. Ransomware looks for data backups and encrypts or deletes them so they cannot be recovered, so use backup systems that do not allow direct access to backup files.
  • Use security software and keep it up to date: Make sure all your computers and devices are protected with comprehensive security software and keep all your software up to date. Make sure you update your devices' software as soon as possible and frequently, as patches for failures are usually included with each update.
  • Practice safe browsing: Be careful where you click. Don't respond to emails and text messages from people you don't know and only download apps from reputable sources. This is important as malware writers often use social engineering to try to get you to install dangerous files.
  • Only use secure networks: Avoid using public Wi-Fi networks as many of them are not secure and cybercriminals can spy on your Internet usage. Instead, consider installing a VPN, which provides a secure connection to the Internet no matter where you go.
  • Stay informed: Keep up to date on the latest ransomware threats so you know what to look for. In case you get ransomware and you haven't backed up all your files, be aware that some decryption tools are available from tech companies to help victims.
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Encryption sustains our digital lives

At the very least, encryption sustains our digital lives if we're doing it the right way. That's why it's important to know what encryption is. Avoid unsecured remote connections of any kind (whether working remotely or shopping online), use email clients capable of encrypting private messages, and use end-to-end encrypted messaging applications.

Do you have any doubts about what encryption is? Leave it in the comments! Enjoy and read more about Technology on our website.

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Quick FAQ

What is Encryption and Examples?

Cryptography is a science that uses data coding to scramble information so that only those who know the codes can read the data and have access to the original information.

What is encryption for?

Encryption protects your data from third parties or unauthorized persons who may read your information.

What is ransomware?

A type of computer virus that hijacks a person's data on a computer, encrypting it and requiring the payment of a ransom (usually in bitcoins) to release the hijacked information.

What is encryption on WhatsApp?

It's a way to protect the messages sent by the app. O WhatsApp claims that its “Encryption end-to-end" ensures that only those who send and receive the posts through the app can access conversations. 

What is the best form of encryption?

The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is an advanced encryption standard, which makes it one of the most popular and secure means. AES is the United States government's standard encryption.

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Paulo Fabris is a journalist, writer, RPG player, gamer, cosplayer, nerd and fan of anime since the time of TV Manchete.