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In cryptography, encryption is the process of encoding a message or information in such a way that only authorized parties can access it and those who are not authorized cannot. Encryption does not itself prevent interference, but denies the intelligible content to a would-be interceptor. In an encryption scheme, the intended information or message, referred to as plaintext, is encrypted using an encryption algorithm – a cipher – generating ciphertext that can be read only if decrypted. For technical reasons, an encryption scheme usually uses a pseudo-random encryption key generated by an algorithm. It is in principle possible to decrypt the message without possessing the key, but, for a well-designed encryption scheme, considerable computational resources and skills are required. An authorized recipient can easily decrypt the message with the key provided by the originator to recipients but not to unauthorized users.


Symmetric key

In symmetric-key schemes,[1] the encryption and decryption keys are the same. Communicating parties must have the same key in order to achieve secure communication. An example of a symmetric key is the German military's Enigma Machine. There were key settings for each day. When the Allies figured out how the machine worked, they were able to decipher the information encoded within the messages as soon as they could discover the encryption key for a given day's transmissions.

Public key

In public-key encryption schemes, the encryption key is published for anyone to use and encrypt messages. However, only the receiving party has access to the decryption key that enables messages to be read.[2] Public-key encryption was first described in a secret document in 1973;[3] before then all encryption schemes were symmetric-key (also called private-key).[4] [] Although published subsequently, the work of Diffie and Hellman, was published in a journal with a large readership, and the value of the methodology was explicitly described [5] and the method became known as the Diffie Hellman key exchange.

A publicly available public key encryption application called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) was written in 1991 by Phil Zimmermann, and distributed free of charge with source code; it was purchased by Symantec in 2010 and is regularly updated.[6]


Encryption has long been used by militaries and governments to facilitate secret communication. It is now commonly used in protecting information within many kinds of civilian systems. For example, the Computer Security Institute reported that in 2007, 71% of companies surveyed utilized encryption for some of their data in transit, and 53% utilized encryption for some of their data in storage.[7] Encryption can be used to protect data "at rest", such as information stored on computers and storage devices (e.g. USB flash drives). In recent years, there have been numerous reports of confidential data, such as customers' personal records, being exposed through loss or theft of laptops or backup drives; encrypting such files at rest helps protect them if physical security measures fail.[8][9][10] Digital rights management systems, which prevent unauthorized use or reproduction of copyrighted material and protect software against reverse engineering (see also copy protection), is another somewhat different example of using encryption on data at rest.[11]

Encryption is also used to protect data in transit, for example data being transferred via networks (e.g. the Internet, e-commerce), mobile telephones, wireless microphones, wireless intercom systems, Bluetooth devices and bank automatic teller machines. There have been numerous reports of data in transit being intercepted in recent years.[12] Data should also be encrypted when transmitted across networks in order to protect against eavesdropping of network traffic by unauthorized users.[13]

Data erasure

Conventional methods for deleting data permanently from a storage device involve overwriting its whole content with zeros, ones or other patterns – a process which can take a significant amount of time, depending on the capacity and the type of the medium. Cryptography offers a way of making the erasure almost instantaneous. This method is called crypto-shredding. An example implementation of this method can be found on iOS devices, where the cryptographic key is kept in a dedicated 'Effaceable Storage'.[14] Because the key is stored on the same device, this setup on its own does not offer full confidentiality protection in case an unauthorized person gains physical access to the device.

Limitations, attacks, and countermeasures

Encryption is an important tool but is not sufficient alone to ensure the security or privacy of sensitive information throughout its lifetime. Most applications of encryption protect information only at rest or in transit, leaving sensitive data in cleartext and potentially vulnerable to improper disclosure during processing, such as by a cloud service for example. Homomorphic encryption and secure multi-party computation are emerging techniques to compute on encrypted data; these techniques are general and Turing complete but incur high computational and/or communication costs.

In response to encryption of data at rest, cyber-adversaries have developed new types of attacks. These more recent threats to encryption of data at rest include cryptographic attacks,[15] stolen ciphertext attacks,[16] attacks on encryption keys,[17] insider attacks, data corruption or integrity attacks,[18] data destruction attacks, and ransomware attacks. Data fragmentation[19] and active defense[20] data protection technologies attempt to counter some of these attacks, by distributing, moving, or mutating ciphertext so it is more difficult to identify, steal, corrupt, or destroy.[21]

Integrity protection of ciphertexts

Encryption, by itself, can protect the confidentiality of messages, but other techniques are still needed to protect the integrity and authenticity of a message; for example, verification of a message authentication code (MAC) or a digital signature. Authenticated encryption algorithms are designed to provide both encryption and integrity protection together. Standards for cryptographic software and hardware to perform encryption are widely available, but successfully using encryption to ensure security may be a challenging problem. A single error in system design or execution can allow successful attacks. Sometimes an adversary can obtain unencrypted information without directly undoing the encryption. See for example traffic analysis, TEMPEST, or Trojan horse.[22]

Integrity protection mechanisms such as MACs and digital signatures must be applied to the ciphertext when it is first created, typically on the same device used to compose the message, to protect a message end-to-end along its full transmission path; otherwise, any node between the sender and the encryption agent could potentially tamper with it. Encrypting at the time of creation is only secure if the encryption device itself has correct keys and has not been tampered with. If an endpoint device has been configured to trust a root certificate that an attacker controls, for example, then the attacker can both inspect and tamper with encrypted data by performing a man-in-the-middle attack anywhere along the message's path. The common practice of TLS interception by network operators represents a controlled and institutionally sanctioned form of such an attack, but countries have also attempted to employ such attacks as a form of control and censorship.[23]

Ciphertext length and padding

Even when encryption correctly hides a message's content and it cannot be tampered with at rest or in transit, a message's length is a form of metadata that can still leak sensitive information about the message. The well-known CRIME and BREACH attacks against HTTPS were side-channel attacks that relied on information leakage via the length of encrypted content, for example.[24] Traffic analysis is a broad class of techniques that often employs message lengths to infer sensitive implementation about traffic flows from many messages in aggregate.

paddinga message's payload before encrypting it can help obscure the cleartext's true length, at a cost of increasing the ciphertext's size and introducingbandwidth overhead. Messages may be paddedrandomlyordeterministically, each approach having different tradeoffs. Encrypting and padding messages to formpadded uniform random blobs or PURBsis a practice guaranteeing that the cipher text leaks nometadataabout its cleartext's content, and leaks asymptotically minimalinformationvia its length.[25]

See also

  • Multiple encryption

  • Substitution cipher

  • Rotor cipher machines

  • Brute-force attack

  • Cold boot attack

  • Dictionary attack

  • Rainbow table

  • Encrypted function

  • Export of cryptography

  • Cyberspace Electronic Security Act (US)

  • Disk encryption

  • Key management

  • Physical Layer Encryption

  • Geo-blocking

  • Television encryption

  • Active defense

  • Cryptography

  • Tokenization (data security)


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