In cryptography, encryption is the process of encoding a message or information in such a way that only authorized parties can access it. Encryption does not itself prevent interference, but denies the intelligible content to a would-be interceptor. In an encryption scheme, the intended information or message, referred to as plaintext, is encrypted using an encryption algorithm – a cipher – generating ciphertext that can only be read if decrypted. For technical reasons, an encryption scheme usually uses a pseudo-random encryption key generated by an algorithm. It is in principle possible to decrypt the message without possessing the key, but, for a well-designed encryption scheme, considerable computational resources and skills are required. An authorized recipient can easily decrypt the message with the key provided by the originator to recipients but not to unauthorized users.
Symmetric key / Private key
In symmetric-key schemes, the encryption and decryption keys are the same. Communicating parties must have the same key before they can achieve secure communication.
In public-key encryption schemes, the encryption key is published for anyone to use and encrypt messages. However, only the receiving party has access to the decryption key that enables messages to be read. Public-key encryption was first described in a secret document in 1973; before then all encryption schemes were symmetric-key (also called private-key).
A publicly available public key encryption application called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) was written in 1991 by Phil Zimmermann, and distributed free of charge with source code; it was purchased by Symantec in 2010 and is regularly updated.
Encryption has long been used by militaries and governments to facilitate secret communication. It is now commonly used in protecting information within many kinds of civilian systems. For example, the Computer Security Institute reported that in 2007, 71% of companies surveyed utilized encryption for some of their data in transit, and 53% utilized encryption for some of their data in storage. Encryption can be used to protect data "at rest", such as information stored on computers and storage devices (e.g. USB flash drives). In recent years, there have been numerous reports of confidential data, such as customers' personal records, being exposed through loss or theft of laptops or backup drives. Encrypting such files at rest helps protect them should physical security measures fail. Digital rights management systems, which prevent unauthorized use or reproduction of copyrighted material and protect software against reverse engineering (see also copy protection), is another somewhat different example of using encryption on data at rest.
In response to encryption of data at rest, cyber-adversaries have developed new types of attacks. These more recent threats to encryption of data at rest include cryptographic attacks, stolen ciphertext attacks, attacks on encryption keys, insider attacks, data corruption or integrity attacks, data destruction attacks, and ransomware attacks. Data fragmentation and active defense data protection technologies attempt to counter some of these attacks, by distributing, moving, or mutating ciphertext so it is more difficult to identify, steal, corrupt, or destroy.
Encryption is also used to protect data in transit, for example data being transferred via networks (e.g. the Internet, e-commerce), mobile telephones, wireless microphones, wireless intercom systems, Bluetooth devices and bank automatic teller machines. There have been numerous reports of data in transit being intercepted in recent years. Data should also be encrypted when transmitted across networks in order to protect against eavesdropping of network traffic by unauthorized users.
Encryption, by itself, can protect the confidentiality of messages, but other techniques are still needed to protect the integrity and authenticity of a message; for example, verification of a message authentication code (MAC) or a digital signature. Standards for cryptographic software and hardware to perform encryption are widely available, but successfully using encryption to ensure security may be a challenging problem. A single error in system design or execution can allow successful attacks. Sometimes an adversary can obtain unencrypted information without directly undoing the encryption. See, e.g., traffic analysis, TEMPEST, or Trojan horse.
Digital signature and encryption must be applied to the ciphertext when it is created (typically on the same device used to compose the message) to avoid tampering; otherwise any node between the sender and the encryption agent could potentially tamper with it. Encrypting at the time of creation is only secure if the encryption device itself has not been tampered with.
Conventional methods for deleting data permanently from a storage device involve overwriting its whole content with zeros, ones or other patters – a process which can take a significant amount of time, depending on the capacity and the type of the medium. Cryptography offers a way of making the erasure almost instantaneous, as long as all data on a device is encrypted and the key is stored on the same device. Although this setup on its own does not offer any protection in case an unauthorised person gains physical access to the device, it means that all information on it can be made inaccessible by erasing only the key. An example implementation of this method can be found on iOS devices, where the cryptographic key is kept in a dedicated 'Effaceable Storage'.
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