More on Encryption

Encryption is a term that is used to generally describe various forms of data protection.  We’ve used the term quite a bit in recent blogs.

If you’ve ever bought anything on the Internet, you’ve probably seen messages saying that your credit card information is safe – or secure – or that all financial data was sent encrypted over the Internet.  Over the Internet, what this generally means is that the data sent between you and the vendor is scrambled in a way that someone who captures YOUR data sent over the Internet would find that information nearly impossible to understand.

So – what is encryption and how does it work?

In a very general way, encryption refers to a method of applying special mathematical processes to your data that scramble the data in a way that can only be understood by a computer that knows how to unscramble the data using the same process and the same formula.  On the Internet, what this usually means is that your computer and the vendor’s computer exchange some code when they begin talking to each other.  The exchange is done quickly, and is more than just a simple handshake – there are a few levels of authentication that are gone through to demonstrate that it is YOU who is sending the data, and it is actually the vendor who is sending the code data TO you.  Once the computer handshake is finalized – and both parties are linked, the codes that both agree upon are used to encrypt the data exchanged over the Internet.

In the case of the Internet, the data you sent goes encrypted over the Internet.  ONLY the linked computer can decrypt the stream of seemingly random digits into usable data.  When the other computer sends responses to you, they are also encrypted, and only your computer can decrypt the data into usable data.

If you return to the site, your computer will have to work with the other computer to create a completely new set of pairing data.  Given the vast number of possible key combinations, it is almost certain that the key codes for each computer will always be unique.  If done properly, those transactions done over the Internet are almost absolutely secure.

For a computer, the process of logging on to an employer’s computers, for example, using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) are similar.  When you use a VPN, an assigned password is used to log in to the computer at the other end.  Without the password, you are unable to get in to the computer to establish the connection.  Once you are successfully logged in – with a recognized username and password – a handshake like the one used for Internet commerce is initiated.  Although the process appears to be almost transparent, a VPN connection sets up encryption and decryption keys that make the data being moved between the computers extremely difficult for anyone who might intercept that data to interpret.

Note: I’m not saying that it would be impossible for the data to be decrypted without knowledge of the key.  However, with the most secure systems, breaking modern codes can take a large battery of supercomputers weeks or months to decrypt the data.  This is a WHOLE LOT of computing power and expense to get data that, by comparison, is usually of relatively little value.

Mark Brownstein is a technology journalist and technology consultant who specializes in explaining and interpreting new technologies, and clarifying how to integrate these new products into current systems. He has been Editor-In-Chief at computer technology and networking publications, has held significant editorial positions at major technology magazines, and is a frequent contributor to various technology magazines. He has written seven books. He is Microsoft Certified, and spends much of his time testing hardware and software products, running his own networks, and learning the best ways to get computer systems running and to keep them running.

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