Many times we would rather not talk about encryption. It tends to be one of those things that people don’t understand, or would prefer that others take care of for them. We often times think about encryption as a hassle or something we should only talk about when we have something to hide. There is this narrative that encryption is only something the “bad guys” will think about.
The truth of the matter is that we all should encrypt our data, and we should have expectations about how companies, products, and our governments encrypt our data. This bears a certain amount of personal responsibility. This also means that we need to make sense of what is encryption…and why do we encrypt.
What is encryption?
Encryption is the process of taking information that makes sense and scrambling it up to turn it into gibberish.
Decryption is the process of tuning this gibberish into something (text, images, audio, video) that makes sense again.
Decrypting is usually conducted using a method known as a cipher. The cipher usually involves a key to make the process possible. A cipher can be as simple as swapping out one letter for another. It could also include substituting letters for numbers or symbols.
Better technology is making encryption much more accessible for the average user. The process of encryption is fairly straightforward. Put simply, it uses mathematical algorithms to encode user data so that only its intended recipient can read it. As an example, if I email you a message, I can use a public key that you provide me to encode the message. When you receive the message, you can decode it with a mathematically related, private key that only you can access.
In reality it’s a simple process. But, when we involve math, and talk about steps…or keys…people lose interest. The challenge is that we expect private things to remain private. We are often annoyed by the steps involved in signing in to a website or service…until someone else gets our passwords or hacks in.
Why we encrypt
One of the top minds on privacy and security is Bruce Schneier. His essay titled Why We Encrypt serves as an excellent overview of the rationale for these practices. Schneier indicates several important points as to why we should understand a bit more about encryption, and make sure that we’re doing it.
He indicates that encryption protects out data, it protects our privacy, and it could very well protect our lives. This protection extends to journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists in situations that need it. It also protects you from neighbors and people that want to maliciously get into your data.
Schneier indicates that encryption works best when it is ubiquitous and automatic. This means that it is always running, even when we don’t know that it is there. As an example of this, the connections between your mobile device and the cell towers you use for service are encrypted. You don’t need to think or do anything about it. But, if someone joined in during a call…you’d definitely have some concerns.
Schneier makes many more excellent points about the reasons why we encrypt. One of the last points I’d like to highlight here is that encryption doesn’t only need to be used with “important” data. If we all use encryption for everything, from simple chatting to important work proposals, there is no way to target the meaningless from the important. To put a finer point on it, if someone needs encryption to protect themselves or others, it’s easier for organizations to target the encrypted data as it must be important. If we’re all encrypting, we’re all important…and we’re all protecting each other.
Learn more about encryption
The following videos will help you learn more about encryption, and why it is important.
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Also published on Medium.