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August 22, 2016

What Is Encryption?

While computer scientists, developers, and cryptographers have created far smarter and complex methods for doing so, at its heart, encryption is simply taking some information that makes sense and scrambling it so it become gibberish. Turning it back into real information–video files, images, or simple messages–can only be done by decrypting it back from gibberish using a method called a cipher, usually relying on important piece of information called a key.

Already there are a lot of unusual words being thrown around. If you’ve ever written in a “secret code” when you were a child, you’ve encrypted a sentence. A cipher can be as simple as moving a letter down in the alphabet. For example, if we take the following sentence:

This is really geeky

With this simple encryption, A becomes B, and so on. This becomes:

Uijt jt sfbmmz hfflz

If you want to make it more difficult to understand, you can easily represent letters as numbers, when A is represented by a 1, and Z by 26. With our cipher, we simply add one to our number:

208919 919 1851121225 7551125

And then when we move our letter’s position with our A-becomes-B-method, our encrypted message now looks like this:

2191020 1020 1962131326 8661226

In our example, our method, or cipher, is to change letters to certain numbers and add to that number to encrypt. If we wanted to, we could call our key the actual information that A = 2, Y = 26, and Z = 1.

With a code this simple, sharing keys isn’t necessary as any codebreaker could decipher our code and figure out the message. Thankfully, comparing modern encryption methods to this is like comparing an abacus to an iPad. In theory there are a lot of similarities, but the methods used have years of study and genius applied to making them richer and more challenging to decrypt without the proper keys–that is, by the users who are doing the encrypting. It’s almost impossible to decrypt using brute force methods or by reassembling data back into something that looks useful, so hackers and bad guys look to humans for the weak link in encryption, not the encryption methods themselves.
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