What is encryption and how does it protect your data?

July 24, 2020

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Encryption can help protect data you send, receive, and store, using a device. That can include text messages stored on your smartphone, running logs saved on your fitness watch, and banking information sent through your online account.

Encryption is the process that scrambles readable text so it can only be read by the person who has the secret code, or decryption key. It helps provide data security for sensitive information.

Vast amounts of personal information are managed online and stored in the cloud or on servers with an ongoing connection to the web. It’s nearly impossible to do business of any kind without your personal data ending up in an organization’s networked computer system, which is why it’s important to know how to help keep that data private.

Encryption plays an essential role.

How does encryption work?

Encryption is the process of taking plain text, like a text message or email, and scrambling it into an unreadable format — called “cipher text.” This helps protect the confidentiality of digital data either stored on computer systems or transmitted through a network like the internet.

When the intended recipient accesses the message, the information is translated back to its original form. This is called decryption.

To unlock the message, both the sender and the recipient have to use a “secret” encryption key — a collection of algorithms that scramble and unscramble data back to a readable format.

Symmetric and asymmetric encryption: What’s the difference?

An encryption key is a series of numbers used to encrypt and decrypt data. Encryption keys are created with algorithms. Each key is random and unique.

There are two types of encryption systems: symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption. Here’s how they’re different.

  • Symmetric encryption uses a single password to encrypt and decrypt data.
  • Asymmetric encryption uses two keys for encryption and decryption. A public key, which is shared among users, encrypts the data. A private key, which is not shared, decrypts the data.

Types of Encryption

There are several types of encryption, each developed with different needs and security needs in mind. Here are the most common examples of encryption.

Data Encryption Standard (DES)

Data Encryption Standard is considered a low-level encryption standard. The U.S. government established the standard in 1977. Due to advances in technology and decreases in the cost of hardware, DES is essentially obsolete for protecting sensitive data.

Triple DES

Triple DES runs DES encryption three times. Here’s how it works: It encrypts, decrypts, and encrypts data — thus, “triple.” It strengthens the original DES standard, which became regarded as too weak a type of encryption for sensitive data.


RSA takes its name from the familial initials of three computer scientists. It uses a strong and popular algorithm for encryption. RSA is popular due to its key length and therefore widely used for secure data transmission.

Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

Advanced Encryption Standard is the U.S. government standard as of 2002. AES is used worldwide.


Twofish is considered one of the fastest encryption algorithms and is free for anyone to use. It’s used in hardware and software.

Using encryption via SSL

Most legitimate websites use what is called “secure sockets layer” (SSL), which is a form of encrypting data when it is being sent to and from a website. This keeps attackers from accessing that data while it is in transit.

Look for the padlock icon in the URL bar, and the “s” in the “https://” to make sure you are conducting secure, encrypted transactions online.

It’s a good idea to access sites using SSL when:

  • You store or send sensitive data online. If you use the internet to carry out tasks such as filing your taxes, making purchases, renewing your driver’s license, or conducting any other personal business, visiting sites using SSL is a good idea.
  • Your work requires it. Your workplace may have encryption protocols, or it may be subject to regulations that require encryption. In these cases, encryption is a must.

3 reasons why encryption matters

Why is encryption important? Here are three reasons:

1. Internet privacy concerns are real

Encryption helps protect your online privacy by turning personal information into “for your eyes only” messages intended only for the parties that need them — and no one else.

You should make sure that your emails are being sent over an encrypted connection, or that you are encrypting each message.

Most email clients come with the option for encryption in their Settings menu, and if you check your email with a web browser, take a moment to ensure that SSL encryption is available.

2. Hacking is big business

Cybercrime is a global business, often run by multinational outfits.

Many of the large-scale data breaches that you may have heard about in the news demonstrate that cybercriminals are often out to steal personal information for financial gain.

3. Regulations demand it

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires healthcare providers to implement security features that help protect patients’ sensitive health information online.

Institutions of higher learning must take similar steps under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to protect student records.

Retailers must contend with the Fair Credit Practices Act (FCPA) and similar laws that help protect consumers.

Encryption helps businesses stay compliant with regulatory requirements and standards. It also helps protect the valuable data of their customers.

How ransomware uses encryption to commit cybercrimes

Encryption is designed to protect your data, but encryption can also be used against you.

For instance, targeted ransomware is a cybercrime that can impact organizations of all sizes, including government offices. Ransomware can also target individual computer users.

How do ransomware attacks occur? Attackers deploy ransomware to attempt to encrypt various devices, including computers and servers. The attackers often demand a ransom before they provide a key to decrypt the encrypted data. Ransomware attacks against government agencies can shut down services, making it hard to get a permit, obtain a marriage license, or pay a tax bill, for instance.

Targeted attacks are often aimed at large organizations, but ransomware attacks can also happen to you.

Here are some tips to help protect your devices against ransomware attacks and the risk of having your data encrypted and inaccessible.

  • Install and use trusted security software on all your devices, including your mobile phone.
  • Keep your security software up to date. It can help protect your devices against cyberattacks.
  • Update your operating system and other software. This can patch security vulnerabilities.
  • Avoid reflexively opening email attachments. Why? Email is one of the principal methods for delivering ransomware. 
  • Be wary of any email attachment that advises you to enable macros to view its content. If you enable macros, macro malware can infect multiple files.
  • Back up your data to an external hard drive. If you’re the victim of a ransomware attack, you’ll likely be able to restore your files once the malware has been cleaned up.
  • Consider utilizing cloud services. This can help mitigate a ransomware infection, since many cloud services retain previous versions of files, allowing you to “roll back” to the unencrypted form.
  • Don’t pay the ransom. You could pay a ransom in hopes of getting your files back — but you might not get them back. There’s no guarantee the cybercriminal will release your data.

Encryption is essential to help protect your sensitive personal information. But in the case of ransomware attacks, it can be used against you. It’s smart to take steps to help you gain the benefits and avoid the harm.

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Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. NortonLifeLock offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about cyber safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses.

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