Decrypting Basic Encryption — A Layperson’s Guide to Words and Phrases

David Geer

Most people recognize that basic encryption is vital to protecting the organization. But, what is basic encryption? Here are some basic encryption words and phrases for everyone to use with confidence.

Text

Ciphertext is encrypted text.

Plaintext is decrypted text. (You’re reading plaintext right now.)

Encryption and decryption keys lock and unlock encrypted data, respectively. A password can “turn” a decryption key.

Math

Data encryption uses math to scramble and encode text so that no one can read it.

Decryption unscrambles encrypted text so that people can read it.

Encryption and decryption algorithms use specific steps in a procedure to encrypt and decrypt text.

Symmetric algorithms use the same keys to encode and decode text.

Asymmetric algorithms use different keys to lock and unlock text.

• Asymmetric algorithms use public keys and private keys. When people know someone’s public key, they can send encrypted messages that only a specific person can unlock using their private key.

Hashing uses math to transform one value into another, resulting in a hash. A hash is more difficult to decrypt than ciphertext, as someone must look it up on a unique hash table. The industry reserves hashes for special applications, such as data compression.

Applications

HTTPS encrypts website connections so no one can see the information that people send and receive while it’s in transit.

Full disk encryption encodes the hard drive on a smartphone, tablet or laptop so that no one can access the files, data or apps on the device without a password or encryption key.

Encryption Standards

• The industry measures encryption strength by the strength of the algorithm and the size of the encryption key. The U.S. government uses the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) algorithm, and so should everyone. A 256-bit key is the largest and strongest key. People can expect to see “AES 256-bit” wherever the most robust encryption is in use.

FIPS is a label that tells everyone what federal standard the data encryption meets. If it’s FIPS, it meets a high standard allowed for use by (nonmilitary) federal agencies, vendors and contractors.

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