Back to the Blog
IT Compliance

What Is Data Encryption and Why Does It Matter?

Joseph Sena

programmer encrypting a data

Cybersecurity risks are higher than ever. It’s crucial to take steps to protect your most sensitive information online, both professionally and personally. One of the most effective ways to do this is with data encryption solutions.

Organizations around the world use encryption as part of their data security strategy. You probably encounter encryption many times throughout your day, whether you realize it or not. 

Banks, healthcare systems, and other organizations that collect sensitive data use encryption throughout their sites.

If your organization isn’t already using data encryption, now is the perfect time to start. Let’s take a look at how data encryption works, why it’s important, and some of the best practices for implementing it in your organization.

Key Points

  • Data encryption is the process of turning sensitive data into unreadable ciphertext using cryptography.
  • Encryption is one of the most effective ways to protect against cyber attacks when implemented properly.
  • There are two main types of data encryption: symmetric and asymmetric encryption. 
  • Encryption has a very broad range of use cases, and many of the websites and apps you use on a daily basis likely already use it.

What Is Data Encryption?

Data encryption uses cryptography to turn plaintext into ciphertext, which makes it unreadable. It does this using a complex algorithm to scramble the letters, numbers, and symbols in the original piece of data. 

There are many types of encryption algorithms, each of which use different methods to do this. While each algorithm results in encryption, they use unique mathematical formulas to get there.

Only those with the decryption key can access the plaintext version of the data. Passwords are often used as decryption keys. 

Encryption is very difficult to crack manually, which makes it a very effective way to protect against cybercriminals and malware attacks.

Types of Data Encryption

There are two main types of data encryption: symmetric and asymmetric encryption. Both types have advantages and disadvantages, so they’re often used in different ways.

Symmetric Key Encryption

Symmetric encryption uses one private key to unlock the encrypted piece of data. This method is often used to encrypt emails and other forms of digital communication. Private keys are also used for digital identity verification as well. 

The recipient of the data will need access to the private key in order to unlock the data. Some of the most popular symmetric encryption algorithms include data encryption standard (DES), advanced encryption standard, AES, Twofish, and Blowfish.

It’s essential to use a secure method when sharing private keys to prevent data breaches in transit. There are a variety of ways to do this digitally, but sharing them over the phone can also be very effective.

Symmetric encryption is much faster than asymmetric encryption. Because of this, it’s often the most effective way to transmit large amounts of data safely and securely. Symmetric encryption is very secure, but it isn’t quite as secure as asymmetric encryption. 

This is because it only uses the decryption and encryption keys, which are the same, resulting in potential security issues if this code is shared with unauthorized users.

Asymmetric Key Encryption

Asymmetric key encryption uses both a public and private key in the encryption process. The system encrypts data using a private key, which is secure and only accessible to designated system administrators. It then uses a separate public key to decrypt the data.

Using two different keys makes this method slightly more secure than symmetric encryption. One of the most popular methods for asymmetric encryption is the Rivest/Sharmir/Adleman method, or RSA method. 

This algorithm is popular due to its security and efficiency. Asymmetric encryption is slower than symmetric encryption and is best for smaller volumes of data.

Not only does public key encryption keep your data safe and secure, but it is also used to prove the authenticity of data. 

Most websites these days use asymmetric encryption methods to create a secure connection with an SSL/TLS certificate. 

Asymmetric encryption is often used in conjunction with symmetric encryption for digital signatures and identity verification as well.

Hashing

Hashing is a practice that is often confused with encryption. Both use mathematical algorithms, but hashing is a one-way function, while encryption is a two-way function. 

Hashing takes existing data and maps it at a fixed length. This hash serves as confirmation that the data is authentic.

Why Does Data Encryption Matter?

Data encryption is one of the best security measures we have to protect against cybersecurity threats and data loss. 

So much of our personal information is stored or used online these days, ranging from our credit card information to our location to our healthcare information. 

With so many companies working online these days, it’s also very important to prevent unauthorized access to your computer systems.Even if cybercriminals get access to your data, they won’t be able to read it without the encryption key. 

In most cases, the only way to gain access to this key is through a brute force attack, which is where the hacker attempts to guess the key by trying every possible combination. 

Even with the help of computers, these attacks are extremely time consuming and are rarely successful. A brute-force attack would take over one billion billion years to crack AES 128-bit encryption.

Since data encryption is a highly established technology, it’s fairly easy and affordable to implement across your systems. 

Many popular apps and hardware devices already come with some form of built-in encryption. There are also many data encryption software programs on the market.

Encryption is particularly essential for organizations using remote or hybrid work setups. If your team members have to work from an unsecured device or WiFi connection, encryption ensures that sensitive work data is still protected. 

Data breaches could result in huge financial losses and damage your reputation with customers, so they’re not something to take lightly.

In addition to keeping your data safe, encryption is also an important part of cybersecurity compliance in many industries. For example, the U.S. government uses AES encryption across the entire public sector. 

This has been a government standard for the past two decades, but many private sector companies both in and out of the U.S. use it for both safety and convenience.

State and local governments may have their own unique encryption requirements, and many industries have their own encryption best practices as well. 

In 2021, the Biden administration released an executive order expanding on these encryption requirements and adding new cybersecurity practices for government agencies.

Encrypting your data adds an extra layer of protection beyond firewalls, anti-virus software programs, and other cybersecurity best practices. 

In today’s highly digital world, it’s important to take every step possible to protect your data. Hackers are always looking for creative new ways to gain access to your data, so you’ll need a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy to keep them out.

Although encryption has been a common cybersecurity practice for decades, many organizations still fail to encrypt all of their secure data, sometimes with disastrous results. One of the biggest examples of this is the 2017 Equifax data breach

This data breach was a result of a variety of cybersecurity vulnerabilities, one of which was a large set of unencrypted passwords. This allowed hackers to access dozens of secure databases with customer information.

How Is Data Encryption Used in Practice?

There are many different ways to use data encryption across your systems. Major tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Android use encryption in different ways on their devices. Here are some common use cases for data encryption.

Email Encryption

Email correspondence is one of the most efficient ways to communicate with people around the world, especially in a professional context. Unfortunately, email can be very vulnerable to security breaches. Encryption is a simple and effective way to protect sensitive emails from prying eyes.

Some web-based email providers like Gmail and Outlook offer built-in S/MIME encryption, but you’ll need to enable it in settings. If you use other email providers, you can use third-party encryption services for security and key management.

Disk Encryption

In addition to encrypting data in transit, it’s also important to encrypt data at rest. This is where disk encryption comes in. This is the process of encrypting data on a hard drive or other form of hardware. 

This is a particularly important tool for environments where you need your data to be physically secure. 

For example, you might use disk encryption for hard drives stored in a busy office with plenty of foot traffic. This ensures that even if your device is stolen, your most sensitive files would be safe. 

This strategy is also very helpful if your device is targeted by ransomware or other forms of malware that could steal your data.

Cloud Data Encryption

Many individuals and organizations use cloud technology as a crucial part of their operations. Cloud technology has streamlined the process of remote work, as users can access cloud programs from any device with an internet connection.

Cloud systems are very convenient and generally very secure. However, they do pose some on-premise security risks that you wouldn’t encounter with an on-premise server setup. 

It’s particularly important to be aware of these risks if you’re sharing a cloud server with another organization, as this makes your data slightly more vulnerable.

However, you can prevent some cloud security risks by encrypting sensitive data you store in the cloud. The process of encrypting data in the cloud will vary depending on the provider you are working with.

Application Encryption

Modern applications often use encryption to create a safer and more enjoyable experience for users. Both customer-facing applications and internal applications can benefit from encryption, and many popular web and mobile apps already use encryption today. 

The encryption is often embedded in the application or tied into underlying structural elements. 

It’s also common for apps to only encrypt certain types of sensitive data, rather than all of the data contained in the app. 

However, there are also apps that have end-to-end encryption built in for maximum security.

Web Encryption

As previously mentioned, many websites across a huge variety of industries use asymmetrical encryption with data certificates. Encryption is particularly important for websites that collect or display very valuable pieces of personal information.

For example, sites that take credit card information or provide access to financial services are highly likely to be encrypted in some way. 

However, popular sites outside of the financial sector like Google, Facebook, and even the New York Times are encrypted to build trust with users and provide an extra layer of protection.

Best Practices for Data Encryption

The more effective your encryption is, the safer you and your organization are going to be online. Good encryption practices build trust with your team and your customers. Here are some encryption best practices to keep in mind:

  • Encrypt all secure data. When developing a data protection strategy, many organizations focus only on one type of data while neglecting others. Since today’s hackers are particularly creative, you won’t want to be selective when choosing which pieces of data to encrypt.
  • Choose the strongest data encryption algorithms. There are a variety of encryption algorithms out there, but they’re not all created equal. You’ll need to choose the right one for you based on your infrastructure and security needs. RSA, AES, and Triple DES are all very strong encryption algorithms.
  • Choose complex encryption keys and keep them safe. In order to keep your data secure, you’ll need unique encryption keys that hackers can’t find through brute-force attacks. Long, complex keys are most effective. You’ll also want to keep these keys stored as securely as possible and back them up regularly.
  • Update your systems and strategy regularly. Make sure you’re regularly updating your encryption strategy to comply with industry best practices. You should also install system updates and security patches regularly. Technology is always evolving, so conducting regular updates will help you minimize vulnerabilities.