8 min read
Jul 8, 2019

4 Common Encryption Methods to Shield Sensitive Data From Prying Eyes

Data encryption works by using algorithms to mask data. Data encryption helps meet regulatory compliance and improves data security and customer trust.

Gitanjali MariaSr. Content Analyst

Here’s a riddle:

If wms = you then Qcaspgrw gq gknmprylr = ?

We come across such cryptic questions in games and competitive exams.

But masking of data is not just limited to puzzles or riddles. Cryptographic techniques find applications in various industries as well. One of the applications is encryption, which helps organizations safeguard their data against prying eyes.

Encryption software helps to quickly convert large amounts of data into cryptic text or numbers using algorithms.

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How does encryption work?

Let’s try to solve the above riddle.

If you move two steps forward (+2) from each character in the encrypted text “wms,” you’d see that each successive character turns out to become “you”. This +2 is the “key” here-used to encrypt the answer and decrypt the puzzle. Now go ahead and apply the +2 key on English alphabet A-Z to decipher Qcaspgrw gq gknmprylr.

The answer is: Security is important.

Modern encryption tools work in a similar fashion but use more complex keys to encode and decode data based on some standard algorithms. Only people, or systems, with the key to the algorithm used can decipher the encrypted data.

A four-bit key uses 2^4 or 16 combinations while a 256-bit key uses 2^256 or 1.1 x 10^77 combinations for ciphering text, making it stronger.

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Symmetric vs. asymmetric encryption

Symmetric encryption: Symmetric encryption uses a single key to encrypt as well as decrypt data. The key needs to be shared with all authorized people. Asymmetric encryption: Also called public key cryptography, asymmetric encryption uses two separate keys-one public (shared with everyone) and one private (known only to the key’s generator). The public key is used to encrypt the data and the private key helps to decrypt it.

Asymmetric Encryption flow chart
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The 4 common encryption methods

There are different encryption methods based on the type of keys used, key length, and size of data blocks encrypted. Here we discuss some of the common encryption methods.

1. Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

Advanced Encryption Standard is a symmetric encryption algorithm that encrypts fixed blocks of data (of 128 bits) at a time. The keys used to decipher the text can be 128-, 192-, or 256-bit long. The 256-bit key encrypts the data in 14 rounds, the 192-bit key in 12 rounds, and the 128-bit key in 10 rounds. Each round consists of several steps of substitution, transposition, mixing of plaintext, and more. AES encryption standards are the most commonly used encryption methods today, both for data at rest and data in transit.

2. Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA)

Rivest-Shamir-Adleman is an asymmetric encryption algorithm that is based on the factorization of the product of two large prime numbers. Only someone with the knowledge of these numbers will be able to decode the message successfully. RSA is often used in digital signatures but works slower when large volumes of data need to be encrypted.

3. Triple Data Encryption Standard (TripleDES)

Triple Data Encryption Standard is a symmetric encryption and an advanced form of the DES method that encrypts blocks of data using a 56-bit key. TripleDES applies the DES cipher algorithm three times to each data block. TripleDES is commonly used to encrypt ATM PINs and UNIX passwords.

4. Twofish

Twofish is a license-free encryption method that ciphers data blocks of 128 bits. It’s considered the successor to the Blowfish encryption method that ciphered message blocks of 64 bits. Twofish always encrypts data in 16 rounds regardless of the key size. Though it works slower than AES, the Twofish encryption method continues to be used by many file and folder encryption software solutions.

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Use cases of encryption

Your data can either be in-transit or at-rest. Data in either of these forms needs to be encrypted according to its sensitivity.

Online payments: PCI-DSS standards mandate payment card data (stored as well as in-transit forms) to be encrypted using algorithms such as AES-256.

Data in the cloud: In public and hybrid cloud models, your data resides at a third-party data center. Any attack on co-tenants can result in your data getting exposed too. Encrypting your data in the cloud prevents hackers from being able to read it correctly. Your cloud provider will also not be able to pry on your data if you alone have the encryption key. Check with your cloud provider to understand what security measures it offers.

Databases: Encrypting databases help to restrict external hackers as well as insiders from seeing specific organizational data. Transparent database encryption (TDE) is a popular database encryption technique that helps to encrypt all “data at rest” in one go.

Emails: Email encryption helps to protect sensitive information sent through email channels. Public key encryption methods along with digital certificates are usually the methods used for securing email communications.

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Steps to implement an effective encryption strategy

Building and implementing an encryption strategy is a collaborative effort between your IT, operations, and management teams. Here are some steps that’ll help you build an effective encryption strategy.

  • Classify data: You need to identify what data to encrypt. Understand and classify different types of data you transmit and store-card details, customer names and emails, company sales data, intellectual property data, and more-based on sensitivity, use, and regulatory impact.

  • Identify the right encryption tools: In most cases, you wouldn't need to implement a separate encryption software. Encryption features are present in commonly used apps and security tools such as email security , payment gateways , and cloud security software . But for encrypting databases or sensitive individual files, you might need separate encryption tools.

  • Implement strong key management practices: If your keys fall into the wrong hands, your data security is at stake. You need to keep an inventory of all your encryption keys, along with information on who has access to them and how and when the keys have been used. Key management solutions help you to store and manage encryption keys.

  • Understand the limitations of encryption: Encryption does not help you prevent or detect cyberattacks. It only ensures that hackers will not be able to read your data. Hence, along with encrypting data, it is also important to implement other strong cybersecurity and intrusion detection measures such as anti-virus solutions and firewalls.

Encryption options in MEO file encryption software (Source)

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