What it is: Encryption is the science of scrambling data so only authorized people can access the information.
Back in the 90’s, the United States tried to get the world to adopt the Clipper chip, which was an encryption standard that allowed the American government back door access to anything the Clipper chip encrypted. Of course, the whole purpose of encryption is to keep people from viewing your information, so allowing the American government access to your encrypted data made as much sense as locking your car but leaving the windows wide open.
Not surprisingly, few corporations and even fewer nations wanted to rely on the Clipper chip if they knew the American government could read their encrypted information easily. Now the National Security Agency (NSA) is trying to push the idea that encryption is bad because it protects terrorists, so therefore we need to ban encryption.
Then again, terrorists also plan their attacks using mobile phones, so we should ban those too. Terrorists also plan their attacks using paper and pencil, so we should ban that too. As you can see, the problem isn’t the technology itself but the misuse of it to hurt others.
Basically encryption is the science of taking data (known as plaintext) and using algorithms to scramble that data so no one can read it (known as cipher text). How the algorithm scrambles data depends entirely on a password.
The key to encryption is the combination of the algorithm and the password. If you have a weak algorithm for scrambling data, it doesn’t matter how strong the password is since someone can still crack a weak algorithm. If you have a strong algorithm but a weak password, someone can simple guess your password. What you need is both a strong encryption algorithm and a strong password.
There are several encryption algorithms available, but the latest one is called the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) that the American government helped create. To insure that there were no back door access hidden in the AES encryption standard, the government held a contest where cryptographers from all over the world could submit their encryption algorithms and anyone could examine the algorithm. Such transparency helped insure that there were no hidden back doors in any of the algorithms.
The goal of an encryption algorithm is to scramble data so it appears as random gibberish. Since algorithms can be easily studied, the real protection comes from the password used to tell the algorithm how to scramble data in a specific way. That’s why web sites often force people to create passwords that consist of upper and lower case letters along with other characters besides letters. The more random the password, the harder it will be to guess. That means the only way to crack encrypted data is to try to break the algorithm, but if the algorithm is strong, that effectively keeps the encrypted data safe from prying eyes.
Realistically, encryption can always be broken. The key to encryption is that to break it, someone may need to spend thousands or millions of years, which effectively makes the encryption unbreakable. All encryption can be broken. The key is how long it will take to break it.
Apple, Microsoft, and other companies offer encryption to protect your hard disk data from prying eyes. Although the NSA wants companies to weaken their encryption, strong encryption can theoretically keep your data safe even from government agencies like the NSA. That’s why the NSA doesn’t like encryption because it hides data from their prying eyes.
When protecting your own data, make sure you’re using strong encryption. That usually means relying on a known encryption standard like AES, and choosing a difficult password. The combination of a difficult password and a strong encryption algorithm effectively makes you data safe from prying eyes. You just have to make sure nobody knows what your password might be. (If you forget your password, that means you won’t have access to your own data either.)
You want strong encryption to protect your own privacy. Now you must also practice good security habits by using unique, difficult passwords because the passwords are the real weak link to encryption. People often write passwords down or make them easy to remember, which also makes them easy to guess. Your password is really the key to keeping your encrypted data safe.
If you’re worried about the security of your data, encrypt your entire hard disk using FileVault, Apple’s encryption program that comes free with every Macintosh. FileVault takes time to set up and can slow down your computer because it needs to encrypt and decrypt data so you can use your computer, but if security is important to you, use FileVault.
Encryption programs like FileVault can just make your data safer and protect your privacy. It will never be perfect, but it’s far better to have some measure of security than none at all.