We’re living in a rough time for data security. Aside from the fact that the severity and average costs of attacks have increased, we’re also seeing a lot more data-focused threats. In fact, 2021 set an all-time record for this type of attack with 1,862 data breaches, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center’s annual report.
What’s even more worrying is that no business, regardless of size, seems to be safe from these threats. LinkedIn, Microsoft, T-Mobile, and Meta are but a few of the many companies that suffered massive data breaches in 2021. Unfortunately, 2022 has also had its fair share of breaches, from the infamous Rockstar hack that leaked footage from the upcoming installment in the GTA series to the attacks on Uber, Twitter, and LastPass.
In that dire context, it’s only natural that companies feel concerned about cyberthreats, even though most of them fail to properly prioritize their security investments. That’s why we felt it would be wise to review some of the basics of modern cybersecurity, starting with three essential security processes for data protection. I’m talking about encryption, hashing, and encoding.
What is encryption?
Encryption is the process of scrambling data into an unreadable format that only authorized people can understand. Using encryption algorithms prevents unauthorized individuals from stealing or manipulating your confidential data, as they don’t have the tools to decrypt the scrambled message.
To decrypt the data, the recipient must have a unique cryptographic key. So data is encrypted when it’s sent, and the recipient is the only one with the key to decrypt it. This makes the data safe during its journey. There are two types of encryption depending on the type of key the sender and recipient use: symmetric and asymmetric encryption.
The symmetric key cryptography method is pretty straightforward. It uses the same key for encrypting and decrypting data. So, before sending data to the receiver, the sender uses something called the private key. This key is only known to the sender and receiver, both of which use it to scramble and unscramble the data they send to one another.
The symmetric key method is fast, which makes it easy to use for big data and significant volumes of data. However, there’s a big disadvantage when using this approach to encryption, as using the same key for encryption and decryption provides less security and increases the chances of the key being stolen.
This is a relatively new method compared to symmetric encryption. The asymmetric key method uses two different keys to encrypt and decrypt data. The first one, used for encrypting, is something called the public key. This kind of key is openly available to anyone. The second one, used for decrypting, is called the private key and should only be known to the receiver.
The asymmetric method is slower than symmetric encryption, which is why it’s mainly used for sending a small volume of data. However, this approach is more secure than the symmetric method, as an unauthorized person would need to hack the two keys to completely compromise any given system.
What is hashing?
To understand hashing, you need to know what a “hash” is and how it works. A “hash” is a number generated by a hash algorithm from an input text. Those numbers are then used to substitute the data, offering a “digital fingerprint” of sorts. There are no two identical hashes for two different texts. Even the slightest alteration will change the hash value completely. After that, going back from the hash value to the original text is almost impossible.
The hashing method protects your data against unwanted changes. Having this technique by your side means your data will be protected and safe without any change. It also means you can identify when, how, and who tried to modify or alter the data. Hash functions are thus used to encrypt passwords, as the numbers are connected to each particular passcode and can reveal whether they were tampered with or not.
Uses of hashing and some popular hashing algorithms
Let’s explain one of the popular uses of hashing in one example. When you send pictures through WhatsApp, the app forwards them to the MD5 hashing algorithm, ensuring that the images remain untouched when traveling from your smartphone to your contact’s phone.
Aside from MD5, other popular hashing algorithms are:
- Secure Hash Algorithm (SHA),
- RACE Integrity Primitives Evaluation Message Digest (RIPEMD),
- Cyclic Redundancy Check (CRC),
- Message Digest (MD) Algorithm.
When we talk about other uses of hashing, we should emphasize its use for digital signatures and SSL certificates. Other than that, it’s widely used in computer graphics and when someone is looking for a specific piece of data in extensive databases.
What is encoding?
First things first — it’s important to stress that we don’t use encoding directly for security purposes. Yet, it can be a helpful method because it transfers data from one format to another while preserving data integrity. Encoding does this for various systems to securely read and use multiple formats without suffering issues.
Encoding doesn’t require any keys. This method only needs an algorithm which will decode the transformed data. We use the same algorithms for encoding and decoding the data. This is why attackers can crack the data fast if they possess encoded data.
If we want to explain the use of this method in everyday life, we can mention audio and video files. Resizing them with this method is easy and effective. Each video and audio file format has a coder-decoder program that codes the file into the appropriate form and decodes it for playback. The most famous encoding algorithms are ASCII, Unicode, and Base64.
As you can see, encoding is mostly a way to ensure availability for the data going from one system to another. It is the reason why it should always work in conjunction with the other data security methods explained above.
Encryption, hashing, and encoding: the first step to keeping your data safe
While these explanations might be a little brief, they are enough to understand why these three are pillars of data security. Encryption protects the confidentiality of data, hashing validates the integrity of data, and encoding preserves the usability of data. Using the three of them can provide you with a basic yet necessary layer of security on top of which you can build your entire security infrastructure.
I want to emphasize the “basic yet necessary” part of this. Don’t think that using encryption, hashing, and encoding will be enough to stop the potential threats heading your way. You’ll need stronger systems, highly detailed security strategies, staff training, and tech investments to truly strengthen your work environment. But you have to start somewhere. In the age of data breaches, understanding and adopting encryption, hashing, and encoding is the right first step.