The evolution of encryption and why governments hate it

Privacy news
3 mins
A door on a wall of code.

Long before governments started fighting to outlaw encryption, politicians from around the world were turning to secret codes to communicate with one another. From Julius Caesar’s cipher to Thomas Jefferson’s wheel cipher, encryption has been an integral part of human history.

While modern methods of encryption have only been readily available for the last 10 to 20 years, one could make the argument that cryptography shaped the modern world.

Read more: Modern-day encryption has ancient cryptography beginnings

What is encryption?

In a basic sense, encryption is the act of securing a piece of information in a way that could only be read by the transmitter and receiver. Have you ever had a friend to which you would send coded messages? Maybe you’d change the first letter of each word to a “Z,” or just scramble the letters altogether. If you did, then you’re already familiar with the basic concept of encryption.

While it’s often referred to as cryptography, the two terms aren’t the same. Cryptography is the act of hiding a communication, while encryption relates to the means.

The expansive history of encryption

Even though encryption may now be a part of our everyday lives, its beginnings trace back to the birth of modern civilization. The term encryption stems from the Greek word kryptos, which means secret. In fact, the first documented use of written cryptography dates back to 1900 BC, when historians found evidence of an Egyptian scribe who wrote hidden messages among hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Fast forward a few hundred years and Hebrew writers had begun readily using a form of cryptography that replaced the last letter of the alphabet with the first one. Known as the Atbash system, this type of encryption was said to be used in the Bible. Even the Kama Sutra (written around the 7th century in India) mentions the use of cryptography and how it was an important practice.

And, of course, there’s Enigma, which is arguably the most famous form of pre-internet encryption. Created by German engineer Arthur Scherbius in 1918, this revolutionary cryptographic device was eventually scooped up by the German military. It took the British until 1941 to fully crack the Enigma, an event which historians say marked the turning point in the Second World War.

How we use encryption today

While pen-and-paper cryptology methods have been around for thousands of years, modern encryption can be traced directly to the late 70s and the advent of DES, or Data Encryption Standard. Developed by IBM, this was the de facto form of encryption until 1997.

With the advent of the internet, cryptography quickly turned digital, and encryption protocols that were once considered unbreakable had been found to be flimsy by today’s standards. After DES was cracked, AES, or Advanced Encryption Standard, soon became the norm.

Unlike previous forms of encryption, AES uses bit keys to scramble packets of data. (Pssst: ExpressVPN uses 256-bit encryption to secure your information.) It’s the highest form of encryption currently available and is currently the method of choice for the U.S. Army. Under 256-bit AES, it would take billions of years for even the most advanced supercomputers to decode.

Why the government is fighting encryption

From philosopher John Locke to author Edgar Allen Poe, the practice of encrypting messages has widely been in use. And while it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint a precise time in human history where the idea of encryption turned from being seen as something useful to something harmful, governments today are trying to set a precedent under the assumption that your information should be readily available at all times.

Fortunately, Apple, Google, and other tech companies see the value in user privacy and are now encrypting most devices by default. Naturally, the law isn’t too happy about this.

You may remember the San Bernardino case a few years ago where Apple refused an FBI request to unlock the killers’ phones, or more recently how the UK home secretary is feverishly pushing secure chat services like WeChat to build backdoors into their apps.

With the recent talk of rolling back net neutrality and giving more power to your ISP, encrypting your devices has never been more important.

How to protect yourself

From the calls we make, the items we purchase with our credit cards, and even the websites we visit, the modern world runs on encryption.

Don’t let the government fool you. Your information is yours and yours alone. You have a right to privacy, and making sure your VPN is turned on at all times is a safe and easy way to help encrypt all your internet traffic.

Read more: Government hacking: How countries surveil their own citizens