What is encryption software?

What is encryption software - Featured image

It’s a tool to keep your stored data safe from prying eyes.

Confidence in the internet is on the decline. Our privacy and personal data are at constant risk of falling into the hands of online snoopers who are often acting on behalf of corporations and security agencies. This is especially concerning when we are exchanging financial information or other sensitive files.

The solution is simple. Encrypt your data. Today, there are many ways to encrypt files before sending them out, often requiring nothing more than a simple piece of software. So, what is encryption software? Read on to find out.

Data encryption explained

Encryption is a way to keep data that you send and receive over the internet safe and confidential. That can include passwords, credit card information, discussions with your work colleagues, or just family pictures being forwarded to friends and relatives. Keeping these files out of the wrong hands requires encryption.

Encryption involves the use of mathematical algorithms that are used to encode user data so that only intended recipients can access the contents.

Data encryption software transforms originally legible information into a massive series of what might look like a completely garbled mess. This is also called a ciphertext because your computer is using a unique cipher algorithm to obfuscate the information. Every single letter and number is converted using this algorithm before being transferred over the network to the recipient. The messages are encrypted based on the set of keys. The computer uses a public key for the initial encryption, but your own private key is the only way to decrypt and access the contents of the message.

Does this get us closer to answering what is encryption software? In many ways, it does. The encryption works through a piece of software that converts so called plaintext into ciphertext. Therefore, software for encryption is a tool that does all this heavy lifting automatically, engaging cipher keys to both encrypt and decrypt any kind of data we want to transfer securely. These are not always separate apps. In fact, most of the time you won’t be launching an encryption utility. Instead, the software you’re using to send a message will provide its own encryption under the hood. The best software does all of this without the user ever needing to bother with the process.

How does encryption software work?

Now that we know what encryption is, let’s look at encryption utilities and what they actually do.

First of all, a separate software to decrypt encrypted files isn’t necessary because a single program can do both operations. Furthermore, many encryption types are compatible with different pieces of decryption software. As such, your coworkers won’t have to get a specific utility to access the files you sent them as long as they have access to the private key.

The journey of your message through an encryption program begins with a key. Of course, that’s not a physical key but a long string of ones and zeroes. An algorithm generates a unique key based on which the data is scrambled. These keys might be used for both encryption and decryption, but in recent years these are generated separately to improve security. Of course, the more complex the key is, the harder it is to crack. Hence, more complex encryption algorithms are being introduced by the day.

What is encryption software doing at this point and how? It involves bits and a lot of them. A bit can have either a value of 1 or a value of 0. So, for example, a 5-bit encryption key can be 10101. But that’s too easy to crack, so it needs to be longer. It’s estimated that a 60-bit key can take up to 34 years to crack by running a script that tries every possible combination. Modern software encryption, including those available on popular mobile apps, operate with 128-bit keys. Computer encryption software that governments, banks and other highly important organizations use is even more sophisticated, operating with 192-bit and even 256-bit encryption keys. The latter is now most commonly used for highly sensitive data and is impossible to crack. Breaking this encryption would require five supercomputers and a thousand years.

Once the key is generated, the encryption utility processes all the data packets using that key, which is also known as a public key. The data is then fired away to the recipient along with the key. When the message reaches its destination, the encryption tools on the recipient’s end work through the data using the private key. Your own key is never shared, and it also works as a sort of proof of identity of the recipient. It communicates with the public key, requesting access and finally decrypting the message.

This method is also called end-to-end or asymmetric encryption. It has been growing in popularity ever since it was introduced as a more secure, reliable solution for safe data transfer. But regardless of which method is being used, encryption programs are fully capable of processing the data with ease. Although symmetric key encryption is more secure than sending messages without any encryption, it has one major flaw. Data in transit can be intercepted. And if only one key is used, snoopers could get hold of your information before it reaches its destination. Therefore, top encryption software and messaging apps use pairs of keys to avoid any potential harm to users. In this case, even if hackers were to steal the data, they wouldn’t be able to access it without a private key, which is only available on the recipient’s device.

Types of encryption

There are various encryption types. Some are fast, and others are complex. But the two main branches are characterized by the distribution of the keys.

Symmetric encryption

This is regarded as an obsolete method of encrypting data. A single key or symmetric cipher is used for both encrypting and decrypting the file or message. As such, this method is fast and less costly but also less safe. Since the cryptography software is generating a single key, it’s easy to see how a simple data breach could collapse this system. This is too risky for modern internet usage and is often avoided for services handling delicate data like banking information.

Asymmetric encryption

End-to-end or the asymmetric method of encryption eliminates the possibility of a middle man meddling with data before it reaches its destination. The method involves two sets of keys – one public used to encrypt and send the data, and one private used to confirm the received data and decrypt it. Asymmetric cipher proved to be much harder to crack while not making data slower to encrypt. Programs are capable of producing 128-bit keys today with a great deal of efficiency and speed.

Most common encryption algorithms

Aside from key distribution, there are a number of algorithms you might come across when encrypting your data.

Triple DES

The Triple Data Encryption Algorithm is a key-block cipher that applies its algorithms three times to each data block. This means that encryption and decryption software must work much longer for the encryption to be fully realised. TDES was chosen as a simple way to enlarge the key space when it was discovered that the 56-bit key of DES was not enough to safeguard data from attackers. DES is now being actively phased out in favor of other algorithms.

AES

Advanced Encryption Standard is a symmetric encryption that proved to be far more secure but still slow to execute. It’s based on the Rijndael algorithm and usually creates 128-bit and 192-bit keys. But the trick lies in block-cipher. One might ask, what is encryption software doing in this case? Well, it splits the data into fixed-sized blocks, encrypting each one through multiple stages. The final result is a very secure encryption based on a single private key.

RSA

The first asymmetric cipher on this list is River-Shamir-Adleman, the best encryption algorithm around. It generally operates with 1024-bit keys and can extend up to 2048-bit. It is quite slow but offers the strongest defense for cloud storage and data sharing. It has quickly become a standard for encryption software, free data transfer services and many other tools we use today to share files with the world.

Twofish

This is the successor to the now obsolete Blowfish encryption. It is a symmetric cipher that operates with blocks but processes data in 16 rounds no matter how big it is. This makes it one of the fastest encryption algorithms around. And with its ability to support up to 256-bit keys, it is one of the hardest to crack.

FPE

The Format Preserving Encryption is another method used for safeguarding data. Encryption software, by definition, transforms the data into something unreadable by humans. But FPE preserves the structure of the password while rearranging the characters or using completely different characters without changing the length of the password. This encryption is commonly found in retail and financial databases.

Bottom line

So, why is encryption used? Our overview of the numerous encryption methods underscores the value of encryption utilities and the way they shield our digital data.

Data transfer, messenger and email encryption programs are constantly evolving, and it will be interesting to see what kind of security measures we see in the future. Engineers are constantly working on new and faster methods of encryption, but hackers are equally eager to breach any new inventions. It’s a war of knowledge and computer skills.

So, did we answer what is encryption software? Our page gives you all of the tools you need to choose the right method and algorithm for boosting the cybersecurity of your organization or private network.