How Does Computer Encryption Work?

Written by jacquelyn jeanty
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How Does Computer Encryption Work?

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With millions of Internet users online every day, the exchange of information is constant. Delicate information like social security numbers, credit card numbers and the like pass back and forth continuously. Were it not for the continued advances in network security, the online world would quickly become an unsafe environment. Computer encryption technologies work hard to keep our private information secure. The science of cryptography is responsible for developing the encryption methods we use online. These methods work by using a key which translates transmitted information into a coded format. The type of key a computer uses is an algorithm. Algorithms are number sequences that are predetermined according to a particular formula. An example of this would be the binary number system which builds upon multiples of two, as compared to the commonly used decimal system that builds upon multiples of ten. In the same sense, encryption keys translate our information into a number language, and then it assigns a system, or pattern by which its numbers will make sense.

Types of Encryption

There are two types of encryption used by computers to secure information: symmetric-key encryption and public-key encryption. Symmetric-key encryption is based on a sophisticated algorithm developed to protect information stored on computers. The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) uses keys that have as many as 256 different codes for each piece of information sent, be it letters, numbers, or pixels. What this means is, a computer hacker would have to try millions and millions of different code combinations before he'd even come close to guessing the one being used. Whenever the AES system is used, both computers--the sending computer and the receiving computer--must have the ability to code and decode information in this format. Public-key encryption was developed for the purpose of protecting information while it is in transmission, or on its way, to another computer. This method uses an asymmetric-key encryption code that's made up of two different keys. One key--a private key--is used by each individual computer, while the second key--the public key--is shared between the two computers that are exchanging information. What happens is the information being sent is first coded by your computer, and sent with an extra code packet which is the public key. The receiving computer must then first use their public key to decipher the information, and then use it's own private key to translate the information into usable form.

How Does Computer Encryption Work?

Encryption Methods

Personal computers, Web servers and Web browsers all use different methods of encryption. The method used depends on the quantity of information being transmitted. A Web server that services thousands of customers would need a great deal more security than a personal computer. This being so, encryption protocols have been developed as standards for network security. One such protocol is the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) developed specifically for information passed between Web servers and Web browsers. Whenever you make a payment transaction online, your browser uses the SSL protocol when sending payment information. A more comprehensive version of SSL is Transport Layer Security (TLS). TLS is a more sophisticated, all-encompassing protocol which comes into play wherever personal information is transmitted, whether it be e-mail, payment processing, or user authorised sites. SSL and TLS both make use of an added feature of network security in the form of digital certificates. Digital certificates require a third-party source, or certificate authority. Certificate authorities verify the identities of the computers making an exchange. How they do this is by granting each computer a digital certificate, which is a code that's recognised by the certificate authority. So whenever two computers are exchanging information, the certificate authority works in the background to verify the identities of both computers. Once verification is made, a public-key encryption code is sent to both computers. From there, the computers are free to exchange information safely.

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