Encryption for your computer files and E-mail
Encryption is the process of transforming information that is easily readable into something unreadable without a valid key. With computers this process uses a mathematical algorithm known as a cipher to encrypt the data. Assuming your algorithm is sound and your key
is strong, nobody can read your encrypted files. There are many type of
encryption available today. Some are weaker than others and some are
virtually uncrackable. What makes a cipher hard to break is the number of possible combinations of the key data that exist. Clearly a cipher that contains 100 possible key combinations will be easy to crack. You just have to try all of the 100 combinations. This is called "brute force cracking". With modern computers the number of combinations runs into the trillions and more. The most difficult ciphers would take large computers many decades to sort through all the possible combinations before hitting on the one that opens the lock. As computers have gotten more powerful the number of combinations have been increased. Computing power is required to encrypt as well as decrypt. As computers get more powerful more powerful ciphers can be created thereby keeping the ability to crack the latest ciphers at a status quo. Other ways of breaking encryption that are typically faster rely on some sort of 'bug" in the encryption software or algorithm. If there is a flaw in the process one can take advantage of the flaw and break the encryption much faster. Modern encryption algorithms are distributed widely to the cryptology community and publically. Both scientists, engineers, mathematicians and hackers are given the source to the encryption to see if they can find a way to break it. After enough time in the public spotlight flaws are found and corrected and very secure algorithms evolve.
Encryption is used in many computer and web applications. If you have ever signed into a bank or credit card web site you have uses what is known as SSL encryption. Whenever you see "https" in your browser address bar it means that you are on a encrypted web page. Most browsers also provide a icon of some sort to indicate that a web page is encrypted. This type of encryption is passive and built into the servers and your browser and requires no user intervention.
However, there are other needs for encryption. If you run a business and have sensitive information in computer files it would be wise to encrypt your data. If you send confidential emails to people you need to encrypt the contents of your emails. Otherwise, someone down stream from your connection could read your confidential emails. This type of encryption requires the user to actively take part in setting up their encryption. Operating systems like Windows offer data encryption for the disk drives. Unfortunately, there are several drawbacks to this as it's based on the security of the Windows platform. In addition, it is quite easy after some sort of equipment failure to end up with a encrypted disk and no key to get in. Loosing all of your data because you can't open your disk isn't worth the simplicity of this approach.
In days gone by encryption was accomplished by giving each individual who needed access a copy of the decryption key. While this works it also presents some problems. What if you want to give a key to someone else but they are not near you. You can send it to them but what if it gets stolen? You can tell them on the phone but what if the phone is tapped? The old system of fixed keys becomes a problem in a world of computers stretched around the globe. A new system called Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) was invented in 1976, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. They developed the concept of asymmetric public-key cryptography. With this technique a person uses a program to generate two keys. Both keys are mathematically related through a cryptography algorithm that is virtually impossible to reverse. One key, known as the private key, is kept private and in a secure location. This key is only needed by the person receiving the message and not by any of the senders. The other key is known as the public key and can be distributed to anyone you want to send you an encrypted message. The public key does not contain the information necessary to de-crypt the data. It only contains the information needed to encrypt. Each person who wishes to receive information creates such a key pair and each person has their personal private key that is never shared.
PKI has become the standard in encryption methodology and is widely employed all over the world. PGP® (Pretty Good Privacy) was developed by Phil R Zimmermann as a PKI answer to high strength encryption for the average person. PGP® has evolved over the years into a mainstream product with numerous applications. It is highly regarded and good safe encryption for people computer needs. PGP provides easy-to-use desktop encryption for non technical users. These and other similar commercial products will protect your computer, hard drives and email keeping your private personal and business information safe.
While you can buy the commercial version of PGP there are also free versions available. The Open Source version of PGP is called GnuPG and can be found at this link. While the free versions of the software provide excellent encryption they often do not include all of the extra features of the commercial product. One of these features that is very useful is the PGP disk application. With this you can create virtual encrypted disks on your hard drive that protect all the data contained in them.