With an escalation in hacks over the past decade, encryption has become a major buzzword in the digital world.  But what exactly is it and how does it affect the security of your online communications?

In its most basic form, encryption is the process of encoding data, making it unintelligible and scrambled. Encrypted data is paired with an encryption key, and only those that possess the key will be able to decrypt or unscramble it. Put even more simply, imagine encryption to be like translating your information into a language only you and your recipient know, and more importantly which a cybercriminal can’t translate. It’s important to understand that encrypting data doesn’t stop someone who is not the intended recipient of a message from intercepting it — but it helps ensure that he won’t be able to decipher it if he does.

For much of the 20th century, sophisticated encryption was available only to members of the military and intelligence communities. They used it to protect their most sensitive communications and kept the technology secret to prevent their adversaries from adopting it. But in 1976, two researchers named Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman published a paper on “split-key encryption,” which demonstrated how individuals and ordinary users could communicate securely by creating a pair of related private and public keys that would be used to encrypt and decrypt plaintext conversations.

Today, we have computers that are capable of performing encryption for us. Digital encryption technology has expanded beyond simple secret messages; today, encryption can be used for more elaborate purposes, for example to verify the author of messages or to browse the Web through an encrypted connection.

Here are some important concepts to keep in mind as you start the process of protecting your data with encryption:

Key fingerprints:

The word “fingerprint” means lots of different things in the field of computer security. One use of the term is a “key fingerprint,” a string of characters like “342e 2309 bd20 0912 ff10 6c63 2192 1928” that allows you to quickly confirm the key that is used to encrypt a message is the right key. If you check that someone’s key fingerprint is correct, that gives you a higher degree of certainty that it’s really them.

Security certificates:

The web browser on your computer can make encrypted connections to sites using HTTPS. When they do that, they examine certificates to check the public keys of domain names (like www.google.com, www.amazon.com). Certificates are one way of trying to determine if you know the right public key for a person or website, so that you can communicate securely with them.

Symmetric-key ciphers:

Symmetric-key ciphers use the same secret key for encrypting and decrypting a message or file. While symmetric-key encryption is much faster than asymmetric encryption, the sender must exchange the encryption key with the recipient before he can decrypt it. As companies find themselves needing to securely distribute and manage huge quantities of keys, most data encryption services have adapted and use an asymmetric algorithm to exchange the secret key after using a symmetric algorithm to encrypt data.

Asymmetric cryptography:

Asymmetric cryptography, also referred to as public-key cryptography, uses two different keys, one public and one private. The public key, as it is named, may be shared with everyone, but the private key must be protected.

While data encryption may seem like a daunting, complicated process, data loss prevention software handles it reliably every day. Data encryption does not have to be something your organization tries to solve on its own.