How Does Encryption Work?

February 26, 2019 • Shannon Flynn


The word “encryption” is synonymous with data protection, and most people are aware of its functionality in their day-to-day lives within a digital context. It has applications in payment, communication and the concealment of sensitive information, serving as an effective means of modern cybersecurity.

While these are all uses for encryption, they don’t answer the question, “How does encryption work?” It isn’t an easy subject to broach, and the encryption process has evolved and taken on new complexity since its humble beginnings in the ancient world. It’s no longer as simple as the first ciphers.

Whether you have a basic grasp on the subject or you’re an experienced tech enthusiast, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about encryption, working through the smaller, more obscure details. Regardless of prior knowledge, you’ll see that it isn’t so difficult to understand.

Fundamentals of Encryption

In its simplest definition, encryption involves encoding a message or information so only the authorized recipient can access it. With digital encryption, computers apply mathematical formulas to data through a process which people can’t easily replicate, effectively concealing it.

Decryption requires a “key,” often the same or related key which was part of the initial encryption. Without a decryption key, decrypting information is next to impossible unless the person attempting decryption has a very, very advanced computer or works at the NSA.

Advantages & Disadvantages

Encryption has positives and negatives, and like any other type of security, it has its downsides. When looking at the subject of data encryption with a real-world perspective, it’s essential to acknowledge the places where it’s weak just as much as the places where it’s strong.

Here are some of the advantages of encryption:

  1. It provides an unprecedented level of protection for personal data.
  2. It secures the otherwise vulnerable assets of data storage companies.
  3. It safeguards data while in transit between devices.

Here are some of the disadvantages of encryption:

  1. The encryption/decryption process can take time for large amounts of data.
  2. In some cases, encryption of data causes a loading delay.
  3. It has the potential to make collaboration and file sharing difficult.

When weighing the pros and cons of encryption, loading delays and lost productivity seem like a small price to pay for security. However, events like the San Bernardino shooting show the unintended consequences of data protection.

Information came to light that Apple refused a request from the FBI to unlock an iPhone which belonged to one of the gunmen. Apple wasn’t willing to create a unique version of the iPhone OS which would allow the user to bypass the system’s security features, fearing it would fall into the wrong hands.

Situations like this demonstrate the compromise which comes with encryption. While the data of everyday consumers is safe from criminals, the information of criminals is safe from those who would bring them to justice.

Real-World Examples of Encryption

Consumers can and should do everything within their power to protect their personal data. There are many methods of securing their information, such as removing passwords from PDF forms. You’re likely familiar with some of these strategies, even if you weren’t aware they were encryption at the time.

As an example, encryption is integral to modern methods of payment. When using a credit card, an algorithm scrambles your information and renders it impossible to access. It remains safe as the merchant and financial institution conduct the transaction. You can only “unscramble” the data with the associated decryption key.

Another example is popular messaging app WhatsApp. In 2014, they implemented end-to-end encryption which made all messages sent on its platform encrypted by default. Not even the company’s employees can view the conversations.

In an increasingly complex and data-driven world where breaches happen every day, it’s reassuring to know encryption is available for many systems and services. Still, these solutions shouldn’t be your only line of defense, and you can always take extra precautionss.

The Final Word: How Does Encryption Work?

Encryption enables consumers to secure their personal information, which becomes more and more crucial with each passing year. But it isn’t only positive, and situations like the San Bernardino shooting serve as an example of the costs of impartial protection. Like everything else, encryption exists in a gray area.

In approaching the question, “How does encryption work?” it’s necessary to handle the subject with subtlety. While the application of algorithms and “keys” are easy enough to understand, these explanations are only surface-level for something which is complex and, at times, ethically challenging.