From ancient Sparta to the age of quantum computing, the art of encryption has woven an intricate thread through history, shaping the way we safeguard our personal data and communications.
In the days of spears and shields, Spartan warriors employed a simple yet ingenious method known as the scytale to encode their messages. Fast forward to today, and we find ourselves in a digitally connected realm protected by VPNs—modern-day sentinels of secure digital communication. A VPN download enables you to encrypt data transmitted to and from your device, scrambling it in a way that can’t be read by anyone other than the intended recipient.
However, on the horizon, a new challenge looms: quantum computing. With unprecedented computational power, quantum machines threaten to disrupt our current encryption methods by making them breakable. The race is on to develop quantum cryptography, a critical defense against this emerging threat.
Join us as we journey through time, where we unravel the history of encryption, and look toward the exciting frontier of quantum-resistant security, that’s set to redefine the way we protect our data.
What is encryption and why do we need it?
Encryption serves as an important safeguard in our digital world. It involves changing data into a code to prevent unauthorized access. Once a practice reserved for military and government use, it’s evolved into a common tool for online security—protecting personal information and upholding privacy rights.
Encryption forms the backbone of cybersecurity. By converting data into an unreadable format, it thwarts cybercriminals attempting to intercept sensitive information.
Encryption also ensures the confidentiality of data such as patient records in healthcare, financial transactions in e-commerce, and online banking details. And beyond individual protection, it’s fundamental in safeguarding national interests. Encryption shields classified information and secures critical communications, standing as a cornerstone of security measures throughout history.
Just how secure is encryption? As an example, ExpressVPN uses AES-256, the same encryption standard adopted by the U.S. government and trusted by security experts worldwide to protect classified information. It uses a 256-bit cryptographic key to convert your plain text or data into a cipher. A brute-force attack on a 256-bit keyspace is simply infeasible, even if all the world’s most powerful supercomputers ran for as long as the universe has existed so far, billions and billions of times over.
But that’s modern, digital cryptography. From its early rise in Sparta and Ancient Rome to its pivotal role in both World Wars, we trace cryptography’s timeline right from the very start:
5 biggest threats to encryption
While encryption has long been an effective defense against breaches, communication interception, and data compromises, technological advancements have brought forth a new set of challenges:
1. Quantum computing
The rise of quantum computing presents a double-edged sword for encryption. On the one hand, it offers the potential for more robust encryption keys that are resistant to even the most powerful supercomputers. On the other, it also threatens the integrity of commonly used encryption methods like RSA, which could be broken by quantum computers in the near future.
2. Key security
Encryption keys are the foundation of modern encryption. If an attacker is able to obtain the encryption key, they will be able to decrypt the data. This is why it’s essential to keep encryption keys secure. However, there are a number of ways that encryption keys can be compromised, including through social engineering attacks, data breaches, and malware infections.
3. Blockchain and monetary security
Blockchain technology is increasingly being used to protect data and transactions. However, blockchain is not without its vulnerabilities. For example, if an attacker is able to control a majority of the nodes on a blockchain network, they could potentially execute a “51% attack” and reverse or modify transactions. Blockchain wallets are also often targeted by hackers, as they can contain large amounts of cryptocurrency.
4. Law enforcement pushback
Encryption makes it more difficult for law enforcement to investigate crimes. Criminals use end-to-end encrypted chat apps just as we all do, and their communications would understandably be a trove of evidence and leads for solving crimes. This has led to calls for backdoors in encryption, which would allow law enforcement to access encrypted data without the suspect’s knowledge or permission. However, many would argue that technology that uses backdoors by definition is no longer end-to-end encrypted and would be a major loss for privacy advocacy.
5. The human factor
Human error is one of the biggest threats to encryption. For example, employees may accidentally expose encryption keys, or they may be tricked into clicking on malicious links that install malware that can steal encryption keys.
The future of encryption: Securing our data in the quantum age
The evolution of encryption is a testament to our dedication to safeguarding digital data. However, in a world increasingly reliant on technology, protecting our sensitive information has never been more important.
In the face of the advanced threats mentioned above, and other formidable challenges, a new era in digital security is emerging. Experts are meeting these hurdles head-on, bolstering our digital lives with innovative solutions. These include:
Quantum computing is set to revolutionize encryption. Unlike traditional methods, which rely on complex math problems, quantum computing presents entirely new challenges. Its immense processing power threatens to quickly solve mathematical puzzles that were previously unsolvable for classical computers.
Quantum cryptography, a groundbreaking approach, uses the unique properties of quantum particles for secure communications. This paradigm shift ditches classical math algorithms, providing an unbreakable foundation for encoding and decoding information. Both companies and governments are heavily investing in research and development to unlock quantum and post-quantum cryptography’s full potential.
ExpressVPN leads the way in this field, being among the first VPNs to implement advanced post-quantum protections. Our post-quantum security is built on the foundation of wolfSSL’s integration with the Open Quantum Safe team’s liboqs (an open-source library for quantum-safe cryptographic algorithms). The encryption relies on the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)-approved Kyber algorithm, ensuring robust defense against quantum computing threats. This cutting-edge protection is available to users through the latest version of the ExpressVPN apps for Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, and Windows.
“Post-quantum algorithms are still relatively new and less battle-tested,” explains Peter Membrey, Chief Engineering Officer at ExpressVPN. “By leaving classical cryptography in the hands of existing tried-and-true standards, we can ensure any unforeseen issues with post-quantum algorithms don’t impact the security or integrity of the broader cryptographic infrastructure—and by extension the security of users.”
The blockchain, once synonymous with cryptocurrencies, has matured into a powerful platform with multifaceted applications, including encryption. Its decentralized nature and use of cryptographic functions make it a strong defense against tampering and unauthorized entry.
Smart contracts, a key innovation within the blockchain ecosystem, provide an automated layer of security. These self-executing contracts directly enforce the terms of an agreement, bypassing the need for intermediaries. As blockchain technology progresses, it’s set to become even more crucial in safeguarding sensitive transactions and data, preventing things like “51% attacks”.
Homomorphic encryption is a game-changer in data security. Unlike typical encryption, which needs decryption for computations, it lets you perform operations on encrypted data directly. This breakthrough enables secure computations while keeping the underlying information private.
As industries grapple with the growing demand for secure cloud-based services and data analytics, homomorphic encryption is becoming increasingly important. By allowing computations on encrypted data, it strikes a balance between data privacy and usefulness. It holds the potential to transform fields from healthcare to finance.
FAQ: About encryption
How does encryption work?
Encryption is a process that transforms readable data (plaintext) into an unreadable format (ciphertext) using a mathematical algorithm and an encryption key. This ensures that only authorized parties can access and understand the information.
There are two main types of encryption:
- Symmetric encryption uses the same key for both encryption and decryption. This is the most common type of encryption and is used in many applications, such as web browsers, email clients, and file encryption software.
Asymmetric encryption uses two different keys: a public key and a private key. The public key is used to encrypt data, and the private key is used to decrypt data. Asymmetric encryption is often used in digital signatures and secure communication protocols.
Encryption is an essential part of modern online activities—from securing online transactions to protecting data and sensitive communication.
How does encryption work in WhatsApp?
WhatsApp employs end-to-end encryption to safeguard users’ conversations. This high-level security measure is based on the Signal Protocol developed by Open Whisper Systems.
Each user is equipped with a private and a public key, a fundamental component of this encryption method. When a user launches the app, a private key is automatically generated and stored within the app’s data library. Simultaneously, the public key is transmitted alongside the message to the intended recipient.
The public key’s role is to encrypt the message while it’s in transit. Upon receipt, the recipient uses their private key to decrypt the message. Since both private keys are kept on users’ devices, unauthorized access to sensitive data by third parties is effectively prevented. This powerful encryption ensures that only the intended recipient can read the messages.
Will quantum computers break encryption?
Yes, quantum computers have the potential to break many of the encryption algorithms that are commonly used today. This is because quantum computers can perform certain types of mathematical calculations much faster than classical computers. For example, Shor’s algorithm can be used to factor large numbers into their prime factors much faster than any known classical algorithm. This could be used to break RSA encryption, which is a widely used encryption algorithm for secure communication and data storage.
However, it’s important to note that quantum computers are still in their early stages of development, and it is not yet clear when they will be powerful enough to break current encryption algorithms. Estimates vary, but some experts believe that it could be 10-20 years before quantum computers pose a serious threat to existing encryption.
In the meantime, there are a number of things that organizations and individuals can do to protect themselves from the threat of quantum computers breaking encryption. One option is to use post-quantum cryptography, which is a type of encryption that is designed to be resistant to quantum attacks. Another option is to use quantum key distribution (QKD), which is a method of distributing encryption keys that is secure against both classical and quantum attacks.
What encryption does https use?
HTTPS uses Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption to protect data in transit. TLS is a cryptographic protocol that provides secure communication over a computer network. It’s the successor to the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol.
TLS uses a combination of symmetric and asymmetric encryption to protect data. Symmetric encryption uses the same key to encrypt and decrypt data, while asymmetric encryption uses two different keys, a public key and a private key. The public key is used to encrypt data, and the private key is used to decrypt it.
To establish an HTTPS connection, the client and server first negotiate a session key using asymmetric encryption. Once the session key is established, all data transmitted between the client and server is encrypted using symmetric encryption.
TLS also provides authentication, which allows the client to verify the identity of the server. This is done using a digital certificate, which is issued by a trusted certificate authority.
What’s the strongest encryption?
The best encryption is AES-256. It’s a symmetric encryption algorithm that is considered to be unbreakable by today’s standards. It’s used by governments, militaries, and high-quality VPN providers like ExpressVPN to protect sensitive data. AES-256 uses a 256-bit key, which means that there are 2^256 or 1.1 x 10^77 possible combinations. This is a truly astronomical number, and it would take even the most powerful computers billions of years to crack AES-256 encryption.
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