What are the types of encryption?
Nov 08, 2021
Online, we benefit from encryption much more than we realize. But each type of encryption has its use. Today, we are looking at various encryption methods, algorithms, and ciphers and the differences between them.
What are the common types of encryption?
Types of encryption, or encryption methods, define the way cryptography ciphers and algorithms are applied. There are two main kinds of encryption — symmetric and asymmetric, or public key encryption.
What is symmetric encryption?
Symmetric encryption is unique because the same key is used both for encryption and decryption. In other words, in symmetric encryption, you have the same password to encrypt and decrypt your files. Moreover, if you wanted to share your files with a friend, you would have to tell them your password. Symmetric encryption is considered to be very secure, but anyone using this kind of encryption must be cautious when sharing their key with other parties.
What is asymmetric encryption?
Asymmetric encryption is also known as public key encryption because it uses a pair of keys to encrypt and decrypt data. One of them should be kept private, while the other can be given to others or even posted online. Let’s say you want to send a novel you’ve been working on to your friend Alice. You can encrypt your files with your friend’s public key, which she will decrypt using her secret key. If your friend sends you an answer, she will be using your public key to encrypt the message, and you will use your secret key to decrypt it.
Asymmetric encryption offers unique security benefits like authentication, protection from some cyber attacks, and remote key sharing even with people you’ve never met. Remember that, when you use symmetric encryption, the biggest issue is sharing your key securely. Besides, the recipient of the message can’t know for sure if a third party tinkered with the message. But, in asymmetric encryption, the public key makes sharing easy, and the protection of the message integrity is already built in.
What is hashing?
We’ve said above that there are two encryption methods, and that’s true. But there’s also hashing. And, while it isn’t technically encryption, it’s often mistaken for one.
First of all, what is hashing? Hashing is the use of mathematical functions to turn a message into a pre-set number of characters. Whether it’s a simple password or Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, you can express both in a single 40-digit hash. The reason it’s not considered encryption is that hashing does not work in reverse. You can’t revert your 40-digit hash back into a literary masterpiece. But hashing is perfect for verifying the integrity of a message because, even if a single letter of the original message was changed, its hash would also be different.
Now that you understand the differences between the main encryption methods and know a little about hashing, let’s look at several encryption algorithms.
AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) is currently the most common symmetric encryption algorithm. It replaced DES (Data Encryption Standard) after several researchers proved that the algorithm can be broken. AES offers 126-, 192-, and 256-bit encryption. Today, AES is used in a variety of ways and applications, like file encryption, SSL/TLS protocol, VPN encryption, and mobile encryption.
Named after its creators, Rivest-Shamir-Adleman, or simply RSA, is an asymmetric encryption algorithm. It’s based on prime factorization of large numbers, which makes RSA very secure and scalable because it allows using different key lengths, like 768-, 1024-, 2048-, 4096-bit, etc. RSA is often used for digital signatures like in email encryption and SSL/TLS certificates.
ECC (Elliptic Curve Cryptography) is based on (you guessed it) elliptic curves. While the mathematicians Neal Koblitz and Victor S. Miller came up with the idea in 1985, it took 20 years for ECC, now called the future of asymmetric encryption, to be adopted more commonly. Where is ECC used? One of the companies to use this modern-day encryption method is NordLocker. As ECC is an asymmetric encryption algorithm, we use it to ensure secure file sharing. Compared to RSA, ECC offers the same security with much shorter keys. Why does that matter? Shorter keys require less computational power and make authentication much faster. It would also take considerably more time to crack it using brute-force attacks.
We briefly mentioned that DES was replaced by AES as the go-to encryption algorithm. But AES was not the only candidate at that time. Blowfish, a symmetric block cipher, was recognized for its efficiency and security. But it never caught on because, by the time Blowfish became known, AES was already adopted by banks and government institutions. You can still find it used today, but there are better alternatives out there.
Twofish is an extension of Blowfish. It’s also a license-free, symmetric encryption algorithm, but Twofish can handle 128- and 256-bit data blocks. It’s also unique since it utilizes 16 rounds of encryption, regardless of the key size.
Since we’ve thrown in hashing with types of encryption, we’ll also briefly mention hashing algorithms, a way the original data is distilled to a unique fixed-character hash. One of the most common hashing algorithm groups are SHA, which includes SHA-0, SHA-1, and SHA-2. The first two have already had their day, but SHA-2 has been the default hashing algorithm since 2017.
If you’re interested in NordLocker’s encryption methods, we highly recommend checking out the Why NordLocker page, where we explain the types of encryption algorithms we use, why we use them, and how they protect your files.
But the short version is that NordLocker uses a hybrid encryption method. We combine the power of AES to protect your data and the efficiency of ECC to help secure your encryption keys.
Uses for encryption
Regardless of the encryption type or the actual algorithm, the primary purpose behind encryption is to protect a piece of data. Here are a few examples of what encryption is used to protect:
Data in the cloud
When you put files in a cloud, they get encrypted. The only difference is who has the keys. When it’s tech giants like Google Drive, they have the ability to decrypt, scrape, or delete your files. When you use end-to-end encryption, the key to your files stays with you.
Browsing the internet, at its core, is about signals going from your computer to your ISP. Internet protocols already have encryption built-in so the signal couldn’t be hijacked.
Keeping user information in plaintext would be highly insecure because the data would be easy to steal. That’s why user passwords, along with other key data, should be kept in encrypted databasesencrypted databases.
Instant messages, emails, and other types of communication should be encrypted to protect the participants. It’s done with the help of asymmetric key encryption and digital security protocols. However, you should be aware of who holds the encryption keys.
Elisa’s all about languages. She speaks five, loves stand-up comedy, and is writing her first novel. Besides her extensive knowledge of cybersecurity, she’s an expert in persuasion techniques hackers use and strives to teach people how to avoid online scams.