What is encryption?

We have all heard the term and know it is supposed to keep our data safe, but what is it? How does it work?

Encryption is how we change information so others can’t read it, except for those who know the secret key. Today that is done with math. Using special kinds of math, you can mix the information you want to hide with the secret key encrypted data. Once it is encrypted, it is very hard to separate the two back out into their parts.

One way to think of how this works is to imaging mixing a several cups of flower and sugar together. Once they are mixed, it is very difficult to separate them back out into separate piles of flower and sugar (unless you have years and years).

How does it work? There are two ways commonly used.

The first way encryption commonly works is you make a copy of your secret key and give it to the people you want to share your information with. It’s like making a copy of your safety deposit key and giving it to your friend. Only the person possessing your key can open your box. This is call Symmetric Key Encryption.

The second common way is to have two different keys made. These keys are specially made so that if you use one set of keys to put something in the encrypted box, you must use the other set of keys to take the information out. One key you can make public and you can copy/share it with anyone you like. The other key is your private key. You don’t share this key with anyone. Using this method, if someone wants to send you information secretly, they use your public key to drop it into your encrypted box and you use your private key to pull it out. What if you want to send information the other way in secret? Just grab their public key and drop the information into their encrypted box. They will then have to use their private key to open their box. This is called Asymmetric Key Encryption.

Security tips are brought to you by the CTS SOC. The mission of the CTS SOC is to provide centralized information sharing, monitoring, and analysis of Washington State security posture. Contact us at: soc@cts.wa.gov.